Meet Herman "the gray mouse" van Rompuy


BRUSSELS, Belgium — “Herman, Herman, he’s not English, French or German” begins a tribute version of the very popular (in Belgium) song “Potverdekke! It’s great to be a Belgian,” by Brussels-based English singer-songwriter Mister John.

For those not on a first-name basis with Europe’s newest boss, the song honors Herman van Rompuy, who this week started his term as the European Union’s first president.

So he’s not English, French or German — what is he?

Even van Rompuy's full name won’t ring a lot of bells outside Belgium. Plucked from general obscurity — he was prime minister of this relatively small European state — van Rompuy takes a seat few people even know exists. The EU’s Lisbon Treaty, fully ratified by all 27 member states late last year, for the first time gives the title of “president” to an individual, not just a country. (EU nations take turns serving as "president" every six months.)

The job description was remarkably thin at conception, with the expectation that the first person to hold the post would be largely responsible for defining its character and color, in addition to the administrative responsibilities of chairing the head-of-state meetings of the European Council meetings and providing continuity between the rotating member-state presidencies. The job does not come with dedicated palatial grounds, only a housing allowance, or a private jet, although that was at one point under consideration. The president does not have the power to hire and fire, and will have no budget other than for his office and staff of about 20 people.

It soon became clear how "colorful" EU leaders wanted their president to be.

Van Rompuy’s low profile was one of the reasons he was selected unanimously by his 26 counterparts on the European Council. After France and Germany decided they didn’t want a strong personality in the new slot who could rival them for power and attention (killing most notably the candidacy of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair), van Rompuy’s nomination emerged as the path of least resistance.

The choice was immediately criticized as unimaginative and a huge disappointment for those who had wanted a dynamic EU president able to impact international decision-making. While ostentatiousness is certainly no synonym for effectiveness, charm does come in handy when trying to forge consensus and van Rompuy is, frankly, going to have rely on other tools. “So much of diplomacy is based upon charisma, and van Rompuy is at best a least common denominator selection,” said Associate Professor of Political Science at Adelphi University Katie Laatikainen, an analyst of EU multilateral relations.

In fact, van Rompuy is often referred to as the “gray mouse."

Surprisingly, that term has roots neither in disparagement nor van Rompuy's professorial appearance. It was van Rompuy himself, quoted in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen, who explained that to rise to the upper ranks of the EU, one must “not ask for high office, but become a gray mouse, and offers will come.”

It’s a philosophy which, while not inspirational, has been effective for the 62-year-old former economist. Van Rompuy only reluctantly became Belgian prime minister last year after repeated requests by the Belgian king.

Similarly, van Rompuy did not campaign for this highest of EU offices, nor did he alter his quirky behavior in the run-up to the appointment to make himself seem more presidential. In a press conference in late October with his Spanish and Hungarian counterparts (whose six-month national EU presidencies sandwich Belgium’s, which will begin in July), van Rompuy used the podium to publicize one of his hobbies: writing haiku in his native Dutch. Saying he knew the poem, dedicated to this “trio presidency” was “not translatable,” he nonetheless read it not once but twice as interpreters stumbled through:

“Three waves enter the harbor together. The trio has arrived home.”

The performance was met with dead silence, until Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai picked up his turn at the microphone with the studiously neutral comment that “it is not easy to speak after such a haiku,” which at least provoked relieved chuckles from the crowd.

On his own website, www.hermanvanrompuy.be, you can find many more haikus (only in Dutch), along with a “poem of the week” and “golden words,” including quotes from Voltaire and Tip O’Neill.

Other traits van Rompuy has displayed are sure to be less entertaining. For example, he said in 2004 that Turkey, officially accepted as an EU candidate country in 1999, “will never be part of Europe.” Upon his appointment as EU president, van Rompuy emphasized that this was a personal opinion and that he would now be responsible for carrying out the will of member states. But this week it didn't seem like he was making an effort to dispel the notion that he is anti-Turkey: He gave his first official speech as president on Thursday at a meeting of the German Christian Social Union, which is calling for Turkey’s membership plan to be scrapped. The speech didn’t mention Turkey.

But van Rompuy will also be hindered by challenges not of his own making. For example, the Lisbon Treaty, which created the presidency, also changed how the EU is represented at the United Nations. As Laatikainen has written in an analysis of post-Lisbon EU diplomacy, the member state holding the six-month presidency would previously use its own U.N. seat to speak for the EU. With the new president taking over the EU "identity" at the U.N., it leaves the bloc with only observer status. That means, Laatikainen underscores, "the EU can speak only after all U.N. member states have spoken, it does not allow voting, or the right of initiative, and so on. Such a secondary role seems to many ill-suited to a newly unified EU foreign policy."

So while van Rompuy’s official status puts him at the diplomatic level of presidents Barack Obama or Dmitry Medvedev, he — and consequently the EU — has no official status, seat or vote at the U.N., not to mention most other international organizations. If van Rompuy could rely on delivering the 27 EU member-state votes as a bloc in such bodies, the EU president would be a power to reckon with. But, as Laatikainen points out, he can’t. “EU member states — by virtue of their legal standing as sovereign U.N. members — can defect from EU coordination,” she said, which can leave the EU's diplomacy "severely impaired.”

In other words, the EU may have given itself a president but given away much of the position's power. It will be up to Herman van Rompuy to prove whether his own political prowess has been underestimated.