Nimble-footed Van Rompuy avoids mousetrap

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Intellectual brilliance and an iron will can take a politician far in most countries. But as the example of Herman Van Rompuy shows, what also count in the European Union’s decorous, clubby atmosphere are the astute deployment of charm and a sense of when not to push your colleagues too far.

Seven months after EU leaders appointed him as the bloc’s first full-time president, Mr Van Rompuy is contributing to a shift in the way the 27-nation EU conducts its business.

When he got the job last November, Mr Van Rompuy was dismissed by some, particularly in the British press, as an uninspired compromise choice, a “grey mouse”. He had served as Belgium’s prime minister for 11 months, was little known outside his native country and had limited experience of high-level world affairs.

EU politicians who have seen him at close quarters say, however, that they are impressed. “Believe me, he is far from lightweight. His knowledge of economics is outstanding,” Mary Honeyball, a UK Labour party member of the European parliament, writes in a blog post.

Economic policy is indeed the area where Mr Van Rompuy is making his biggest mark. Before the bloc’s Lisbon treaty came into force in December, the design, implementation and supervision of EU policies was shared among the European Commission, parliament and whichever member state happened to hold the EU’s rotating presidency. After six months, the presidency would be handed over to the next country in line.

This lack of continuity prompted EU governments to establish the full-time presidency. However, they set out neither the precise responsibilities of the new president nor how he would interact with the rotating presidency, which was not abolished.

With hindsight, this ambiguity was tailor-made for Mr Van Rompuy, who had honed his skills in the complex rivalries and institutional subtleties of Belgian politics. He seized on the fact that the biggest challenges facing the EU were the sovereign debt crisis, reform of eurozone economic governance and how to increase Europe’s economic growth rates.

Mr Van Rompuy persuaded EU leaders in March to let him lead a task force that includes national finance ministers, which is drafting proposals on strengthening eurozone governance. He will deliver the task force’s final report in October. He has also chaired two meetings of the eurozone’s 16 national leaders – not a role foreseen under Lisbon.

In this way, economic policy, an area in which the rotating presidency might have been expected to continue playing a prominent role, has turned into a central part of his territory. He makes light of his expanded powers. In March he quipped: “From grey mouse to putschist. That was quick.”

Diplomats say three factors have helped Mr Van Rompuy’s ascent. First, clashes of policy and political styles between Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, have created a space for Mr Van Rompuy to act as the EU’s pole of harmony and conciliation.

Second, Spain, holder of the rotating presidency from January 1 to June 30, has been preoccupied with its own economic troubles.

Third, Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, who chairs meetings of eurozone finance ministers, has lost influence over the past two years as Europe’s financial crises intensified. Mr Sarkozy was particularly dissatisfied with Mr Juncker’s performance and was willing to turn to Mr Van Rompuy instead.

This has caused officials in one leading EU member state to grumble sotto voce that Mr Van Rompuy is “too close to the French”.

But other countries feel that Mr Van Rompuy has done exactly what the Lisbon treaty envisaged: giving a more effective lead to the European Council – which groups national governments – than a country at the helm for six months can ever do.

What’s more, his profile might get bigger before he completes his 2½ year term, which can be renewed once. The rotating presidency will pass in July to Belgium, always keen on boosting EU institutions, and in 2011 to Hungary and Poland, newcomers to the job after joining the EU in 2004.

It looks possible that the rotating presidency will lose even more importance. Mr Van Rompuy is no putschist but there can be few European politicians who have maximised their influence as expertly as he has done this year.

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