Van Rompuy is the right man for the job

Belgian leadership consists of bringing consensus to a fractious coalition, exactly what the president of the EU has to do

It is so easy to get exasperated with the European Union
– its lack of ambition, its multiple co-ordination failures, its notorious
ability to disappoint. And was not last week’s nomination of Herman
Van Rompuy
and Baroness
Ashton
to the two big jobs created by the Lisbon treaty further proof of
the EU’s tendency to settle for the lowest common denominator? Have we wasted a
unique chance of global leadership by not appointing Tony Blair or some other
star, or at least somebody whose name we know how to spell?

I think not. On the contrary, the Belgian prime minister
and the British European commissioner were among the better
candidates
for the two jobs of president of the European Council, and high
representative for foreign policy. I am not saying this because I know these
two politicians better than most of my colleagues. I do not. I am saying this
because I have a different interpretation of the challenges facing the EU in
the next decade. And this implies a very different
job definition
. In particular, I do not accept the prevailing view that Europe’s fundamental problem is one of representation and
communication – the type of problem Mr Blair would have been suited to solve.

The three fundamental problems of today’s EU are: an
inability to set precise policy goals; poor follow-through; and perhaps most
importantly, poor co-ordination and crisis management.

In short, the EU has problems that require a specific
type of leadership. Just look back a year ago, when the EU mismanaged its
response to the financial crisis. The European Commission dug its head in the
sand; President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, then holder of the EU’s
rotating presidency, failed to co-opt Angela Merkel, the German chancellor,
into a joint strategy; and there was no one else who could bang heads together.
This could have been a moment of glory for Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg
prime minister and president of the eurogroup that brings together eurozone
finance ministers. But it was not, and that was perhaps one of the reasons why
there was so little enthusiasm for him as possible council president.

As I argued last week, I am hopeful that Franco-German
relations
are likely to improve, a necessary but not sufficient condition
for better governance at EU level. I am also hopeful that Mr Van Rompuy may
turn out to be somebody who does not drop the ball during a crisis, as the EU’s
combined leadership did last year. He has done a remarkable job as Belgian prime
minister. Before he took over a year ago, the country was in the middle of a
grave constitutional crisis. The conflict between the country’s linguistic
communities escalated. Some observers were even talking about a break-up of the
country into its Flemish and Walloon parts. The prospect seemed so realistic
that a spoof television programme about Belgium’s break-up was widely
believed. It pretended to show pictures of King Albert and his family fleeing
the country. Even diplomats, no longer sure which country they were accredited
to, were alarmed. In less than a year, Mr Van Rompuy managed to unite the
warring factions inside his fickle multi-lingual coalition. It was this
performance, not his penchant for haiku poetry, that impressed other EU
leaders. He is somebody who has demonstrated an ability to bring a laser-sharp
focus to a complicated political process.

But critics say that Belgium is a tiny county with
little more than 10m inhabitants. Surely it is not comparable to the EU, a
colossus with a population of 500m? I do not believe that size is that
relevant. The EU is in many respects more similar to Belgium than to any of its large
member states. Like the EU, Belgium
is linguistically and culturally divided. The art of Belgian political
leadership consists of bringing consensus to a broad and fractious coalition.
This is exactly what the president of the European Council will have to do. In
such an environment the last thing you need is a traffic-stopping visionary
leader. There is therefore no point in comparing Mr Van Rompuy to Barack Obama,
the US
president.

Does the appointment of Mr Van Rompuy mean that the EU
has abandoned all aspirations of global leadership, and that another decade of
navel-gazing beckons? I do not think so.

The good news is that we will not be talking about,
negotiating or ratifying another big European treaty for at least a decade. The
main task ahead will be to make the existing EU work better, and that will
invariably mean accepting a greater amount of global responsibility. If we want
to solve the vexed problem of Europe’s
ridiculous over-representation in international organisations, we need a
serious political process that leads to big political and legal shifts in
several member states. A hand-shaking president, who gives the appearance of
representing a united European front, will not do.

There is no way to know for sure whether Mr Van Rompuy
will succeed. Perhaps he will not. But from what we know he has some of the
qualities needed to address the specific shortcomings of the EU at the moment.
The Belgian prime minister still has plenty of time to disappoint. Until then,
I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This piece was first published in the Financial Times on 23 November 2009.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author