The newspapers and the bookies say that Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy is one of the top candidates for the job as the first “EU President.” A glance at his recent career reveals that he is indeed the “perfect” candidate for the job. As Speaker in the Belgian federal Parliament, he changed the locks to the plenary session room overnight in order to prevent a gathering of parliamentarians from taking place. Who would better fit as the head of an organization that forces member-states to organize a second referendum when the first one doesn't give the desired result?
The current Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy seems to have become the top candidate for the job of EU President (technically only the president of the European Council) because, so far, he has abstained from ventilating his own opinion about anything at all on a European level. That is also the reason why it is so difficult to oppose to his candidacy, unless one knows his background and his recent career as the Speaker of the federal Parliament and Prime Minister.
But is Mr. Van Rompuy a candidate at all? Officially, he and his party claim that he is not, because he is supposed to be “indispensable” in Belgium. However, the events at the secretive Bilderberg Group dinner last week clearly tell another story: he is definitely pursuing the job as the first EU President. During the dinner, he held a talk in which he elaborated on how the European Union could be financed directly, as opposed to the indirect financing mechanisms today. He rejected “green” taxes for the purpose, as they would fade away over time, and instead proposed EU-wide taxes on financial transactions, much like the infamous Tobin tax. After the talk, one of the guests – apparently an Italian – asked him a question about those taxes, at which he reacted rather annoyed. Clearly, he felt uncomfortable being quoted as proposing EU-wide taxes, right now, just before a decision about the appointment of the first EU president has to be made. He went as far as publishing a part of his secret speech in a press release in order to control the damage. All this begs the question though: if Mr. Van Rompuy is not a candidate, why would he be so uncomfortable to express his opinion about EU-wide taxes? If he is really so “indispensable” in Belgium, then why did he not use this argument to make it very clear that he will not accept the job of EU President?
The Flemish newspaper De Standaard, which broke the story about the events at the Bilderberg Group dinner, commented yesterday that Herman Van Rompuy's proposal for a EU tax was leaked because one of the guests at the secret dinner clearly wanted to spoil his candidacy. One can wonder what sort of man this is, and what sort of nomination process the EU runs for its president, if the revelation of one of the candidates' opinion about a very relevant subject is enough to ruin that candidacy. Just imagine how that would work out if it would be transposed to the US presidential elections; imagine the outcry that would generate in European newspapers. In the mean time, half a billion EU citizens are left wondering who this man is, and what he stands for.
Indeed, what can we expect from Herman Van Rompuy if the becomes the first EU president? The man has never been very talkative to the press, and has always felt most comfortable in closed meetings or in the back-rooms. In fact, in the early nineties, he was once quoted as saying that he pursues power, but not top positions. It is generally accepted that he was the mastermind behind the agreement that lay the basis for the current Belgian federal government. One of the key events necessary to reach that agreement was that his own party, the Flemish Christian-Democrats, broke their major promise from the 2007 election campaign, i.e. to split-up of the mixed Flemish–bilingual (and thus unconstitutional) electoral district of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. However, before the agreement was reached, the Flemish, including Herman Van Rompuy's own party, CD&V, had already submitted a motion of law in the federal Parliament to split the electoral district, approved in a commission by a Flemish majority against the French-speaking minority. As the Speaker of the federal Parliament, Mr. Van Rompuy managed to delay a vote in the plenary session for several weeks before it was blocked by a motion of conflict of interest of one of the regional parliaments. Changing the locks of the plenary session room was just one of the tricks he used; not showing up in his office for a whole week, so that he could avoid having to open a letter, was another one. Whereas previous Speakers probably would have been deeply ashamed of having to resort to such techniques, Mr. Van Rompuy took pride in it. Recently, he even bribed one of the regional parliaments with a federally financed football stadium to delay the vote in the federal Parliament with at least another four new months, just to stay longer in power. Remember that we are talking about the major promise of his own party during the 2007 election campaign. The motion of law which Mr. Van Rompuy prevented from being voted, was brought forward and supported by his own party. One of the most outspoken proponents of it had even been his own brother, Eric Van Rompuy.
Another aspect worth mentioning, is that Herman Van Rompuy is the leader of a federal government that does not have a majority among the Flemish members of parliament. In an interview with the Flemish newspaper De Morgen during the election campaign of 2007, Mr. Van Rompuy had declared that such a construction would "endanger the Belgian state." Of course, before the elections Herman Van Rompuy's fear was that the former government, lead by Guy Verhofstadt, would have continued after the elections without his own party being able to join the government. Now that his party is a member of the federal coalition, and a fortiori now that he heads it, a federal government lacking a majority in the Flemish group of members of parliament is no longer a problem for Mr. Van Rompuy.
These two little stories show that Herman Van Rompuy is a man who aligns himself quickly with the powers that really be once he has captured a position. During the government negotiations or as a Speaker in the federal Parliament, he no cared about what he and his party had promised the electorate during the election campaign. Mr. Van Rompuy does not represent his own electorate, but the Belgian establisment.
Traditionally, the Belgian establishment has always favored tight European integration. If Mr. Van Rompuy were to become the first EU President, further integration of the European Union will be one of his main ambitions. EU-wide taxes fit that picture very well, and the event at the Bilderberg Group dinner can be regarded as a very revealing slip-of-tongue. One can also expect him to plead strongly for a further expansion of the Eurozone, and to restrict as much as possible the abolishment of the exceptions which the UK, Sweden and Denmark have become from the Maastricht Treaty. This is what the EU bureaucracy would want to see him do, and that is who he will align himself with. This EU bureaucracy also strongly favors Turkish EU membership, so contrary to what Mr. Van Rompuy said in the Belgian Parliament in 2004, he will gladly lead further admission negotiations with Turkey. Ukrainian EU membership, which he favored, probably will have to wait, since this could anger Russia and therefore is not so popular in the highest EU circles. As to how he would preside the European Council, expect him to use all the tricks in the book to do whatever is necessary to stall or even avoid unwanted discussions. A democratic reform of the EU, including more transparent nomination processes, however, will not be on the top of his agenda.