One of their own: Herman Van Rompuy, first President of the European Union
by Paul Belien
Herman Van Rompuy. Get used to the name. He is the first President of the European Union, which with the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon by all the 27 EU member states in early November was transformed into a genuine United States of Europe.
The President of Europe has not been elected; he was appointed in a secret meeting of the heads of government of the 27 EU member states. They chose one of their own. Herman Van Rompuy was the Prime Minister of Belgium. I knew him when he was just setting out, reluctantly, on his political career.
To understand Herman, one must know something about Belgium, a tiny country in Western Europe, and the prototype of the EU. Belgians do not exist as a nation. Belgium is an artificial state, constructed by the international powers in 1830 as a political compromise and experiment. The country consists of 6 million Dutch, living in Flanders, the northern half of the country, and 4 million French, living in Wallonia, the southern half. The Belgian Dutch, called Flemings, would have preferred to stay part of the Netherlands, as they were until 1830, while the Belgian French, called Walloons, would have preferred to join France. Instead, they were forced to live together in one state.
Belgians do not like their state. They despise it. They say it represents nothing. There are no Belgian patriots, because no-one is willing to die for a flag which does not represent anything. Because Belgium represents nothing, multicultural ideologues love Belgium. They say that without patriotism, there would be no wars and the world would be a better place. As John Lennon sang “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”
In 1957, Belgian politicians stood at the cradle of the European Union. Their aim was to turn the whole of Europe into a Greater Belgium, so that wars between the nations of Europe would no longer be possible as there would no longer be nations, the latter all having been incorporated into an artificial superstate.
A closer look at Belgium, the laboratory of Europe, shows, however, that the country lacks more than patriotism. It also lacks democracy, respect for the rule of law, and political morality. In 1985, in his book De Afwezige Meerderheid (The Absent Majority) the late Flemish philosopher Lode Claes (1913-1997) argued that without identity and a sense of genuine nationhood, there can also be no democracy and no morality.
One of the people who were deeply influenced by Dr. Claes’s thesis was a young politician named Herman Van Rompuy. In the mid-1980s, Van Rompuy, a conservative Catholic, born in 1947, was active in the youth section of the Flemish Christian-Democrat Party. He wrote books and articles about the importance of traditional values, the role of religion, the protection of the unborn life, the Christian roots of Europe and the need to preserve them. The undemocratic and immoral nature of Belgian politics repulsed him and led to a sort of crisis of conscience. Lode Claes, who was near to retiring, offered Herman the opportunity of succeeding him as the director of Trends, a Belgian financial-economic weekly magazine. It is in this context that I made Herman’s acquaintance. He invited me for lunch one day to ask whether, if he accepted the offer to enter journalism, I would be willing to join him. It was then that he told me that he was considering leaving politics and was weighing the options for the professional life he would pursue.
I am not sure what happened next, however. Maybe word had reached the leadership of the Christian Democrat Party that Herman, a brilliant economist and intellectual, was considering leaving politics; perhaps they made him an offer he could not refuse. Herman remained in politics. He was made a Senator and entered government as a junior minister. In 1988, he became the party leader of the governing Christian-Democrats.
Our paths crossed at intervals until 1990, when the Belgian Parliament voted a very liberal abortion bill. The Belgian King Baudouin (1930-1993), a devout Catholic who suffered from the fact that he and his wife could not have any children, had told friends that he would “rather abdicate than sign the bill.” The Belgian politicians, convinced that the King was bluffing, did not want the Belgian people to know about the King’s objections to the bill. I wrote about this on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal and was subsequently reprimanded by the Belgian newspaper I worked for, following an angry telephone call from the then Belgian Prime Minister, a Christian-Democrat, to my editor, who was this Prime Minister’s former spokesman. I was no longer allowed to write about Belgian affairs for foreign newspapers.
In April 1990, the King did in fact abdicate over the abortion issue, and the Christian-Democrat Party, led by Herman Van Rompuy, who had always prided himself on being a good Catholic, had one of Europe’s most liberal abortion bills signed by the college of ministers, a procedure provided by the Belgian Constitution for situations when there is no King. Then they had the King voted back on the throne the following day. I wrote about the whole affair in a critical follow-up article for The Wall Street Journal and was subsequently fired by my newspaper “for grievous misconduct”. A few weeks later, I met Herman at the wedding of a mutual friend. I approached him for a chat. I could see he felt very uncomfortable. He avoided eye contact and broke off the conversation as soon as he could. We have not spoken since.
Herman’s political career continued. He became Belgium’s Budget Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Speaker of the Chamber of Representatives and finally Prime Minister. He kept publishing intellectual and intelligent books, but instead of defending the concept of the good, he now defended the concept of “the lesser evil.” And he began to write haiku.
Two years ago, Belgium faced its deepest political crisis ever. The country was on the verge of collapse following a 2003 ruling by its Supreme Court that the existing electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV), encompassing both the bilingual capital Brussels and the surrounding Dutch-speaking countryside of Halle-Vilvoorde, was unconstitutional and that Parliament should remedy the situation. The ruling came in response to a complaint that the BHV district was unconstitutional and should be divided into a bilingual electoral district Brussels and a Dutch-language electoral district Halle-Vilvoorde. This complaint had been lodged by… Herman Van Rompuy, a Flemish inhabitant of the Halle-Vilvoorde district.
In 2003, however, the Christian-Democrats were not in government and Herman was a leader of the opposition. His complaint was intended to cause political problems for Belgium’s Liberal government, which refused to divide the BHV district because the French-speaking parties in the government refused to accept the verdict of the Supreme Court. The Flemish Christian-Democrats went to the June 2007 general elections with as their major theme the promise that, once in government, they would split BHV. Herman campaigned on the issue, his party won the elections and became Flanders’ largest party.
Belgium’s political crisis dragged on from June until December 2007 because it proved impossible to put together a government consisting of sufficient Dutch-speaking (Flemish) and French-speaking (Walloon) politicians. The Flemings demanded that BHV be split, as instructed by the Supreme Court; the Walloons refused to do so. Ultimately, the Flemish Christian-Democrats gave in, reneged on their promise to their voters, and agreed to join a government without BHV being split. Worse still, the new government has more French-speaking than Dutch-speaking ministers, and does not have the support of the majority of the Flemings in Parliament, although the Flemings make up a 60% majority of the Belgian population. Herman became the Speaker of the Parliament. In this position he had to prevent Parliament, and the Flemish representatives there, from voting a bill to split BHV. He succeeded in this, by using all kinds of tricks. One day he even had the locks of the plenary meeting room changed so that Parliament could not convene to vote on the issue. On another occasion, he did not show up in his office for a whole week to avoid opening a letter demanding him to table the matter. His tactics worked. In December 2008, when the Belgian Prime Minister had to resign in the wake of a financial scandal, Herman became the new leader of the predominantly French-speaking government which does not represent the majority of Belgium’s ethnic majority group. During the past 11 months, he has skillfully managed to postpone any parliamentary vote on the BHV matter, thereby prolonging a situation which the Supreme Court, responding to Herman’s own complaint in 2003, has ruled to be unconstitutional.
Now, Herman has moved on to lead Europe. Like Belgium, the European Union is an undemocratic institution, which needs shrewd leaders who are capable of renouncing everything they once believed in and who know how to impose decisions on the people against the will of the people. Never mind democracy, morality or the rule of law, our betters know what is good for us more than we do. And Herman is now one of our betters. He has come a long way since the days when he was disgusted with Belgian-style politics.
Herman is like Saruman, the wise wizard in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who went over to the other side. He used to care about the things we cared about. But no longer. He has built himself a high tower from where he rules over all of us.
Geo-strategists are debating whether Europe’s superpower moment is or is not just around the corner. But if the nomination process for the individual who will represent 500 million Europeans has demonstrated anything at all, it is that Europe is inexorably moving in a direction that has far more in common with Soviet totalitarianism than with Western liberal democracy.