Don't underestimate the 'grey mouse' from Belgium

Herman Van Rompuy arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday evening.

By Luuk van Middelaar

Belgium is nothing if not pragmatic. The Dutch could learn a lesson from the Belgians' clever handling of Herman Van Rompuy's candidature for EU president.

Losing to Belgium is always painful for the Dutch, whether in football or in politics. On Thursday night a Dutch TV news anchor gave voice to the hurt national pride when he said: "Why Van Rompuy and not Balkenende? How could this happen?" The Brussels correspondent offered that the EU leaders preferred someone "with a blank slate" to someone with "experience". Herman Van Rompuy had only been prime minister of Belgium for less than a year, whereas Balkenende is leading his fourth government in a row. The TV audience was reassured: our compatriot had simply been overqualified.

Clever balance

The reality is that the Belgians once again demonstrated that they know how to play the European game down to their fingertips. First of all the Belgian media strategy was brilliant. Belgian editorials emphasised Van Rompuy's qualities as a statesman and pointed out Balkenende's shortcomings. The latter is in charge of an increasingly eurosceptic country, which voted against the European constitution, and he his leadership at home has been weak, it was said. This analysis soon found its way to international papers like Le Monde. Let it be a lesson to Dutch diplomacy: yes, the ultimate decisions are taken in the very closed circle of the 27 heads of governments, but the media do play a role in the run-up. Belgium's candidature was a clever balance between discretion and publicity.

Another factor was that the Dutch underestimated the confidence a small and relatively compliant country like Belgium instills in France and Germany. Sarkozy and Merkel were the king makers in the appointment of an EU president, especially after they agreed to support one and the same candidate. The Netherlands too has a good relationship with Berlin and Paris, but a good relationship is not the same as full confidence, and and occasional compliment is not the same as a job offer.

In Britain's lap

Another thing that made Paris and Berlin uncomfortable is The Netherlands' close ties with London - third of Europe's Big Three. For instance, they saw prime minister Ruud Lubbers as sitting in British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's lap during the 1980s. At the time of the 2003 Iraq invasion the Netherlands, under Balkenende, sided with the British and the Americans, whereas Belgium joined France and Germany in opposing the war. Such things are not easily forgotten. Paris and Berlin figured a Belgian EU president would be more dependable than a Dutch one. Or to put a negative spin on it: they felt a Belgian was easier to control.

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It was a decisive advantage for Van Rompuy, and there is not much the Netherlands can do about it, unless perhaps to question the wisdom of being friends with all the Big Three at the same time, as seems to be the current Dutch strategy. Former British ambassador to the Netherlands Colin Budd once advised The Hague to pick just two, although he didn't say which ones.

What matters now is not assuming everything will stay the same because "a grey mouse" has been chosen to be the first EU president. (Another sigh of relief in the Netherlands: at least our prime minister is not a grey mouse.) Yes, the rotating presidency between EU member countries will continue for ministerial meetings other than the foreign ministers. And yes, at the foreign policy levels there will be competition between two, three or even four different figures in Brussels. And no, the new EU president will probably not overshadow Sarkozy, Merkel or Brown.

Step by step

But that doesn't mean the function of EU president doesn't have potential. Van Rompuy will not be a president like Barack Obama. The EU isn't and will never be a unitary state. The EU is more like a convoy of 27 ships, each with their own captain. Van Rompuy will not be able to decide which course the convoy takes, but he can make sure that all the ships are following the same course. In his own words on Thursday evening: "Step by step, but not too little, too late."

What's more, the measure of someone's authority is not determined by his job description alone. It is future political events - international storms, internal strife, unexpected drama - that will determine Van Rompuy's place.

Formally he has two cards to play. First, the EU president will represent the union at his level, meaning the high representative for foreign affairs will meet with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but it will be Van Rompuy who meets with Obama. This will lend him prestige and therefore power.

Second, Van Rompuy will preside over the meetings of the European Council. Even if his job will be more that of a chairman than a French-style president, it is not without meaning.

Holding the hammer

The European Council is where the highest national power structures come together: it unites the 27 heads of government as well as Commission president (José Manuel Barroso) and the high representative for foreign affairs (Catherine Ashton). An agreement in the European Council is binding for the executive powers throughout the union. The man holding the chairman's hammer is also the one who will communicate what has been decided in the council to the media and the public. As Van Rompuy knows very well from his Belgian experience, being the messenger lends power, especially when the decision is the result of bitter negotiations and last-minute compromises.

The European Council was only formed in 1974, but it quickly became the centre of European decision-making. Originally the European construction did not allow for heads of government summits. To the founding fathers of Europe such summits smelled of the pre-WWII era, when European politics were dominated by clashes of national interests without a common goal, with small countries inevitably being trampled by the big ones. Belgium and the Netherlands especially hoped a neutral Commission could gradually become something resembling a European government, which would be better equipped to protect their interests from the big countries.

This was of course anathema to the French. It was all very well to have the Commission make proposals about the price of milk or which nets should be used to catch herring, but the big foreign policy decisions were best left to the heads of government. French president Charles De Gaulle was the first to call occasional meetings of the heads of government, and his successor Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was the one who brought regularity to their summits. "Once this regularity had been accepted, Giscard d'Estaing wrote in his memoirs, "the power of the heads of government would do the rest (...) and a European executive would come into existence."

Tindemans' big idea

And that is exactly what happened. In 10 years time the European Council became the de facto centre of power in the EU. It allowed the member countries to impose themselves at the very heart of the European decision-making process. That Belgium should be the one to supply the first permanent president of the council is not without irony: the country that needs Europe like no other, because its own federal state is on life support, is now validating the very institution that guarantees the continued dominance of the nation states in the unified Europe.

But then Belgium is nothing if not pragmatic. When Giscard d’Estaing was trying to sell the concept of the European Council to the other heads of government in December 1974, the Benelux countries were very much opposed: they feared the European Commission would be weakened to the benefit of the big countries. Then Belgian prime minister Leo Tindemans had an idea.

Where would these summits take place? Tindemans asked. In the interest of the "cohesion of the European institutions" wouldn't it make sense that al least some of them were held in Brussels? Giscard d'Estaing was overjoyed: if the where was being discussed, then the if was a foregone conclusion. It was decided to hold three summits a year, and at least one of them would be held in Brussels or Luxembourg. It was an exemplary European-style compromise in which only the Netherlands was left empty-handed.

It was also typical of the Belgian attitude. If the French and the Germans were going to have their way with the European Council, Tindemans figured, let's at least have it in Brussels. A few months later a young collaborator called Herman Van Rompuy joined Tindemans's staff. Thanks to the efforts of his former boss, Van Rompuy now only has to move a few hundred metres when he starts his new job: from number 16 in the Rue de la Loi, the official residence of the Belgian prime minister, to number 155 in the same street, where the future office of the EU president is under construction. That's another thing the Dutch may have overlooked about the Belgians: they were playing on their own turf.

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