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Leo Tindemans’ Report on the European Union in 1975 was instrumental in shaping the course of the continent's integration. It also gave the Belgian statesman, who has died at the age of 92, the lasting sobriquet, “Mr Europe”.
Yet in old age Tindemans was dismayed by what he saw as the EU’s fateful lurch back to intergovernmentalism, and in his own country to the divisions he had fought to overcome as prime minister from 1974-78.
Son of an Antwerp diesel mechanic, his roots were Flemish and Roman Catholic; for years he remained mayor of the town of Edegem, where he was living when he died. Born in 1922 and a refugee in France at 18 to avoid transportation to Nazi Germany, he had an early baptism in international relations when he witnessed the British retreat at Dunkirk. He studied economics at Antwerp and Ghent and, after a brief period as a functionary in the agriculture ministry, in 1958 became secretary-general of the Flemish Christian Democrats (CVP).
The position allowed him to forge international connections, notably in France, Germany and Italy. He also came to know Jean Monnet, the man usually credited with bringing the European Community to fruition.
Tindemans became a Belgian MP but took time out to study at Harvard in 1963, where a life-long friendship with Henry Kissinger began, along with a recognition that it was not necessary to belong to a superpower to make a significant contribution to world politics. “At Harvard,” a political associate put it, “the heavy Flemish earth fell off his shoes.”
By 1968, he was a minister with a growing reputation as an honest broker. Charged with preparing reforms that would grant cultural autonomy to Belgium's linguistic communities, he patiently steered a course between the francophone Walloons and the Flemish who were economically the rising force.
For him, what was then known as the “European Project” appeared the only workable solution to the continent’s blood-soaked history, for which Belgium had often been the killing field. Yet another attraction of uniting Europe was also that it subsumed the intractable quarrels, and relative weakness, of his own country.
Tindemans was named Belgium’s deputy prime minister and budget minister in 1973. After early elections the following year, he led a coalition government with the Liberals. With the backing of 155 MPs in the 212-strong parliament, Tindemans then set about reaching agreement on his ambitious constitutional reforms. There was plenty else to occupy him, not least the beginning of the 1970s oil shock, about which he presciently remarked: “This is not a thunderstorm. It is a climatic change.”
But Tindemans’ passion was now Europe. In 1974 an EEC summit in Paris charged Tindemans — at the suggestion of Britain’s Harold Wilson — with defining “an integral concept of European Union”.
His report the following year was a practical programme of steps, that above all reinforced existing institutions including the executive, in the form of the European Commission.
The recommended method was to develop consensus among member states and avoid any dramatic rewriting of treaties. But the goal was ambitious: a “People’s Europe” centred on the idea of a European cultural, economic and monetary union, a central bank and a common foreign and security policy.
Tindemans did not hide the implications for the more neurasthenic member states, notably the extension of majority voting in the Council of Ministers. But in dealing with the problem of varying sensitivities about pooling sovereignty, he planted the seed of a two-tier Europe, with a federal hardcore.
Yet in truth the report provoked only shortlived discussion, as if it were just another piece of word-spinning from Brussels. Years later, Tindemans observed laconically that if Margaret Thatcher claimed she did not know what she was doing when she agreed to the Single European Act, “it is probably true”.
At home, the factions continued their manoeuvres. The 1977 elections increased the Christian Democratic vote, but coalition building was proving testing. Tindemans proposed a once-and-for-all settlement to federalise Belgium into three regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. It was not to be. Outraged by the shameless horse-trading among the parties over what was, after all, the constitution, Tindemans resigned dramatically in parliament in October 1978.
Fresh elections again left the Christian Democrats in the driving seat. But it was Wilfried Martens, Tindemans’ rival and CVP party leader, who eventually — without previous experience of government — became prime minister, staying in power on and off for a further 13 years.
Tindemans had co-founded, and from 1976 to 1985 chaired, Europe’s first would-be political force, the European People’s Party. Thus the European parliament was a natural next step, and his election in 1979 was almost presidential. Leading the CVP list, “Mr Europe” won a landslide majority, earning another nickname: “Million Vote Man”.
He returned to national politics as Belgian foreign minister in 1981, taking centre stage during the country’s six-month presidency of the bloc the following year. It was a turbulent period marked by the crisis over martial law in Poland, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the Falklands war, and the bitter tussle with Thatcher over the UK rebate.
He was a central figure in the Zaire crisis of 1989, which culminated in a deal that Belgium would forgo everything it was owed as a state, and one-third of commercial debt. But he was frustrated by what he saw as the lack of support for embracing the democratic wave sweeping Africa.
Africa’s problems and possibilities inspired him — it was unfinished business. At the same time, there were limits to what a Belgian politician, however talented, could achieve. “My dream”, he said whimsically at the time, “is to be foreign minister of a big country.” Tindemans finally left national politics and rejoined the European parliament, regarding its role in realising the single market as an important enough alternative.
Strasbourg now had a serious, if limited and confusing, decision-making role, thanks to the Maastricht treaty that Tindemans had helped shape. But he fell victim to infighting. Elected leader of the EPP parliamentary group in 1992, he was displaced two years later over the issue of bringing the British Conservatives into its ranks.
Tindemans’ nemesis, once again, was Martens, also now a former prime minister. Yet he continued to serve in the European parliament until 1999.
Later, Tindemans became professor of international relations and European policy at the Catholic University of Leuven, from where he argued for a US-style constitution for an enlarged Europe. He was also interested in security and defence policy — his report with Bronislaw Geremek on the Balkans, entitled Unfinished Peace, foresaw an indefinite western military presence in the fractured region.
In 1995 he established, with Ted Turner, George Soros, Michel Rocard and others, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group to serve as an early-warning system for imminent catastrophes. It was another of Tindemans’ many legacies.
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