The former Belgian prime minister and long-serving president of the centre-right European People’s Party Wilfried Martens has died at the age of 77. The news has triggered reactions across Europe, praising his statesmanship at Belgian level and contributions to the EU project.
Wilfried Martens was one of Belgium’s most renowned politicians and a frontman for the Christian Democrats in Europe since he co-founded the EPP in 1976.
Martens led nine Belgian coalition governments between 1979 and 1992, with only a short interruption in 1981, a record number of years as prime minister for the country. During this period, Martens furthered the reform of Belgium into a federal state and tackled the 1981-1982 economic crisis by introducing reforms and devaluation.
With his passing, a big chapter of the EPP's history comes to a close. He co-founded the EPP in 1976 and took on the role of president in 1990, which he held until his decease on Thursday (10 October).
Under his leadership, the EPP has grown into the largest political group in the European Parliament and has enormously influenced EU politics. Amongst others, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and Commission president José Manuel Barroso make part of the EPP political party.
Martens’ deteriorating health had become obvious in recent months. He was hospitalised at the end of August for blood coagulation problems and released on 9 September. Martens then resumed his presidential duties - albeit with additional support from EPP vice-presidents.
On 8 October, he transferred his functions as EPP president to Joseph Daul, the political group's chairman in the European Parliament. Daul explained that “Wilfried called me last Friday (4 October) to ask me if I could take over from him”. He added that Martens was suffering from “serious health problems”.
Martens died last night (9-10 October) at his home in Lokeren, Belgium. He will receive a state funeral on Saturday 19 October in the Saint Bavo cathedral in Ghent.
President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, a fellow party member of Martens at the Flemish Christian Democrat CD&V, said: "In Belgium he was the father of the federal system; of the economic recovery at the beginning of the eighties. In the European Council he played an important role in his years as prime minister - he is a record holder of [the number of years of] being a PM in our country."
The Council president added he worked very closely together with Martens, saying "Wilfried Martens was a man of strong, European convictions. He was a man of character; with a high sense of duty. He was a real and great European - we will all miss him."
Joseph Daul, Chairman of the EPP Group and Acting President of the EPP, said in a statement: “Today we have a lost a great European, a founding father of the EPP, and of the European Union. We will always remember the legacy of a great leader and all that he has done for our political family. The EPP was Wilfried Martens’ life’s work and he worked with an unstoppable energy to promote Christian democratic values in Europe.”
“Needless to say, the EPP will never be the same without him. We will always be indebted to him for his leadership and the role he played in making the Europe of today,” he said.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said: “On behalf of the European Parliament, I pay tribute to Wilfred Martens - a great statesman of Belgium, Europe and an outstanding leader in the European Parliament. Among his remarkable achievements, Wilfred Martens played a tremendous role in reuniting the European continent. Our condolences and thoughts are with his family and friends.”
Sir Graham Watson MEP, the president of the European Liberal Democrats, said: "Wilfried Martens was the leading architect of the biggest pan-European political party. He struggled against the shackles of history and won. For Europe to become a true community, his successors must build on his legacy."
Commission President José Manuel Barroso, giving his condolences, called Wilfried Martens a “great statesman” and “a man of conviction and strong values”who will be remembered for having brought people together in his homeland and in Europe.
“His personal commitment to the integration of the [centre-right] parties in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe was of paramount importance. [His] actions has followed the path of the founding fathers of the European Union, [such] as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi,” Barroso said.
The liberal ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt, who had worked with Martens both in Belgian and EU politics, said: “Martens was a convinced European, an eloquent politician and prime minister with whom I have been happy to work. Together we initiated the economic recovery of our country in the eighties. I vividly remember our cooperation in addressing the recovery of our public finances, a job in which he [...] personally supported me and stood by my side. He was a versatile, cultured man who had the political fire in him from his youth, a passion that he never lost in his career.
“He will certainly be sorely missed in Europe, where he was active after the end of his national political career, as President of the European People's Party."
Jean-Luc Dehaene, Member of the European parliament from Martens’ party CD&V and former Belgian Prime Minister, said: “Martens has always shown a strong commitment, both in Belgian and European politics. He was someone who worked hard to improve society and has made this his life's goal, until the very end. He actually wanted to stop as Chairman of the EPP ten years ago, but when they asked him to go on, he answered positively because of who he was."
Former Polish prime minister and MEP of the EPP group Jerzy Buzek said: "A great Belgian and a great European passed away. He led his party to greatness - to the largest political force in Europe. Anyone who knew him, also got to know the strength of his character as well as his sensitivity and solidarity in difficult times. Contrary to what is often said, certain people are irreplaceable."
President of the European socialist party PES Sergei Stanishev said: “Martens remained a strong defender of democracy and the EU until the end of his life. His many years of dedication to the European project are testament to the conviction of his beliefs and the courage of his actions. He will be rightfully remembered as a significant figure in the democratic history of Europe.
19 Oct.: State funeral in the Sint Baafscathedral in Ghent, Belgium.