Talks to agree the EU’s long-term budget are so gruelling, fraught and complex that Tony Blair once said bringing peace to Northern Ireland was easy by comparison.
But the former British prime minister never served as leader of Belgium, a country divided by three official languages and countless levels of government whose partisans seemingly never tire of battling over money and power.
That experience will surely prove invaluable for Herman Van Rompuy, the first president of the EU Council, as he tries to stitch together a budget deal that allows 27 leaders, with competing demands, to leave Brussels declaring victory.
While nobody would suggest Mr Van Rompuy is likely to succeed through force of charisma – he was once compared with a “low grade bank clerk” by UK independence politician Nigel Farage – his circumspect style and feel for political compromise could be tailor-made for this challenge.
“Every top politician in Belgium is at some staged nicknamed ‘le plombier’ [the plumber] because they are so skilled at plugging gaps,” said one senior European official. “Van Rompuy is one of them. In the end [the deal] looks awful, but it works.”
Another referred to him as “the Belgian wizard”, only half in jest. “He saved Belgium once so he may be the perfect man to save the budget,” the official said. “He is cunning, he is discreet and he has carved out an important role for himself, especially since the Franco-German engine broke down.”
On Friday night, summit success looked far from certain. But diplomats were praising Mr Van Rompuy’s opening compromise proposal for clearing space for the deal. “You can hear the anchors being tugged,” said one of the national bargaining positions.
His pitch was to cut spending to levels that could be acceptable to the UK – long seen as the biggest obstacle to the deal – without significantly upsetting the balance of the budget.
Meanwhile, Mr Van Rompuy left untouched money pots for growth friendly projects and the EU bureaucracy– giving him some political bargaining chips to potentially lubricate an agreement.
Critics would argue his meek demeanour means he merely presides over the power-politics of a summit, rather than shaping it. But Mr Van Rompuy – a devoted haiku writer – showed some negotiating steel at a summit last December, where the UK was left isolated.
While David Cameron is usually depicted as wielding a veto, it was in fact Mr Van Rompuy who abruptly cut short the discussion of safeguards for the City of London, in spite of the prime minister pleading for more time. Mr Cameron believed he provoked an unnecessary rupture.
Mr Van Rompuy’s biggest asset is being under-estimated by opponents, say Belgian commentators. “It seems like he doesn’t show ambition but the truth is that he is always very focused on the end goal,” said a person who knows him closely but did not want to be named. “If needed he will not refrain from twisting arms.”
Mr Van Rompuy has been credited of ushering Belgium into the eurozone by convincing Socialist coalition partners that austerity was the only way to save the central European country.
Carl Devos, a Flemish political scientist who knows Belgium’s former prime minister well, described him “the king of dealmaking”. “Internationally he never got much recognition for his political acumen, but at home everyone knew that behind every key decision Van Rompuy was the man orchestrating things.”
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