Van Rompuy: ‘EU leaders only take bold decisions when they have a knife against their throats’

Former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in his office in front of a portrait of his late, lifetime friend Jean-Luc Dehaene [Daniela Vincenti]

EXCLUSIVE / In a candid interview with EURACTIV, the former President of the European Council said the EU takes the boldest decisions only in crisis situations, “when we have our backs against the wall and are staring at the abyss with a knife against our throats”.

That happened during the eurozone crisis, and it is likely to happen again with the unprecedented refugee crisis, he said, urging for “more Europe”.

Herman Van Rompuy is the former President of the European Council and a former Prime Minister of Belgium. On 1 September, he became President of the European Policy Centre (EPC), a Brussels-based think tank.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti.

We are meeting today (9 September) as President Juncker is pronouncing his State of the Union address in Parliament and a few hours before you make your own State of the Union speech at the EPC. Why did you feel compelled to have a State of the Union inaugural speech at the European Policy Centre? Is there a sense of nostalgia even though you never pronounced one, as it was in the remit of President Barroso?

No, I have no nostalgia at all. I did my job for five years. The day I have left office, I have turned a page and started a new life. Those who have seen me in the last 9 months can confirm that I am doing well. The EPC, organise each year the State of the Union event. So that is a complete coincidence! I have no strong desire to get involved again. I try to support the present leadership of the Council and Commission where I can.

The State of the Union address is usually a moment to reflect on achievements and challenges ahead. I am sure you had time to reflect in the last year since you left office. So what is your final take?

I draw a lot of lessons from that time. The main lesson, of course, is that instead of less Europe, we need more Europe, and particularly in the eurozone. Once you have a common currency, you need much more common policies. We tried, during those five years, and especially during the first 3 years, to be effective in crisis management, to keep the club together, and at the same time take new initiatives to prevent this from happening again.

We were successful in crisis management, but the crises we faced in my period were different to those of 2015. The survival of the eurozone was at stake, whereas now, the survival of the Greek economy and the well-being of the Greek people is at stake. So we managed to save the eurozone, and at the same time we decided on key elements of a deepened economic and monetary union, especially the monetary union. I think we were also very successful on the fiscal union, perhaps a bit less successful in the economic union, but this work is not over.

We need more Europe, especially in the eurozone, and that is the big lesson. We are interdependent. We are all in the same boat.

The same is true of the migration crisis. Instead of having less Europe, we need more Europe. Instead of having national borders, we need a truly European approach. Another parallel is that in the eurozone crisis, we had a systemic dimension, a purely European dimension. Europe is not just the sum of its member states, that is what we discovered.

Once we decided on the banking union, the surveillance mechanism and going further, it is no surprise that a few months later the crisis had abated. So we tackled the specific European dimension of the problems of the eurozone. Here too, with the migration crisis, we have a specific European dimension. We cannot solve the problem if each of the member states doesn’t put its own house in order. We need a shared approach. The main lessons I draw from those 5 years are valid also on other issues.

Is Europe running after emergencies, without a real vision?

You have to look at the problems case by case. Every problem is different. Let’s take the case of the war and refugee problem we have today. We had signals of this problem back in 2013 and 2014. Remember Lampedusa. There was partially an inflow of people fleeing war zones and instability, but probably the majority of them were economic migrants. But still there was a problem. For months we thought we could handle it without the efforts made by the Italians. It was only after a new disaster that we decided to join forces and give Frontex all the means and instruments it needed to save people. That was not our happiest moment. I think we should have decided much earlier to follow up on Mare Nostrum.

But my point is that nobody had really foreseen the situation we are experiencing now. All those refugees living in camps – 4 million in Jordan and Turkey – this was a real surprise. We didn’t anticipate that those people, after 2 or 3 years, found that there was no prospect of returning to Syria. They said: “Our children have had no schools for the last 3 or 4 of 5 years, so we have to do something else,” and they became really desperate. With some exceptions, nobody really anticipated it would reach that point.

“Events, dear boy, events!

'Lampedusa was a warning shot. I must admit we did not react appropriately'‘Lampedusa was a warning shot. I must admit we did not react appropriately’

Nobody anticipated the Greek crisis, nobody anticipated the refugee crisisOr nobody wanted to see it coming. Isnt this a lack of leadership on the part of EU leaders?

No, I think you are using rather strong words there. But as the economist [Paul] Krugman said, in recent years we have all been confronted by a lot of surprising crises. Who predicted the Greek crisis? Who predicted the banking crisis? Not us. But then nobody foresaw the fall of the Berlin Wall, nobody foresaw the shale gas revolution, nobody foresaw the Arab Spring—what about May 1968? You should not overestimate the capacity to anticipate and to foresee.

In the migration crisis, we had some elements: Lampedusa was a warning shot, and there were others. And I must admit that we did not react appropriately. But this crisis we are facing now is a different problem. Now we have to deal not so much with economic migration, but with people that are fleeing the region, who are completely desperate. It was very difficult to foresee that this would happen in such great numbers. And it is the numbers that are causing such a problem.

So leadership is the ability to react rapidly to a crisis and solve problems, because in todays world, foreseeing problems is becoming more and more difficult.

Of course, of course. As Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, told a journalist who asked him what was most likely to blow the government off course, he responded “Events, dear boy, events.”

Looking at these events, member states have shown little inclination to share responsibility for the refugees, and they continue to squabble over quotas. Farage has pointed out that, rather than a union, this is a Europe in a state of disunion.

He likes the disunion, because he can use it to his own advantage.

Right, but as you have been heading this group of 28 leaders, have you had the sense that there has been a growing unity moving forward, or is this still a long way off?

The EU is a young construction, compared to single member states. It is the latest structure of cooperation. France has existed for a thousand years. The Union is only 70 years old. We have to bear in mind that what we have already achieved is impressive. From where we were 70 years ago compared to now, this really is impressive. But we are now going through a period where there are not only unexpected evolutions, but also fundamentally changing evolutions. That makes it more difficult to get agreements than in the past.

I’ll give you one example: Jacques Delors’ initiative on the common market was a win-win decision.  I will not say that it was easy, but compared to the eurozone crisis, it was totally different.

This refugee crisis has never been seen before. The hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their region and trying to get to Europe is unprecedented. It is the biggest displacement of people anywhere in the world since the end of WWII. You can even compare it with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the decision to integrate these new Germans into the European Union was a very big decision. But now we are living in a very changeable time, and we have to deal with these problems on the spot.

Of course it takes time to agree with 28 countries, or 19 in the eurozone. Of course there are tensions. We proved in the end that we can overcome these problems but it takes time. Even the eurozone crisis. How many people made bets on a Grexit? It didn’t happen. It took months and months, too long, but finally, we did agree.

I don’t know if we are ready to tackle the European dimension of the migration crisis, but I hope so. One aspect is the fair distribution of migrants. When I was in office, it was asked for by Malta. There was absolutely no readiness from any of the other countries to do so. It was proposed in June by the Commission, when the migration problem was building up, but the numbers were much smaller than they are today. It was not accepted.

My experience is that we can only really decide and take bold decisions when we have our backs against the wall and are staring at the abyss with a knife against our throats! So convening on major steps, unfortunately, requires a crisis situation. My experience from national politics is the same. Even in the private sector, the boldest decisions are often made in a crisis situation.

Unity only occurs during a crisis?

Unity for taking bold and qualitatively different decisions, not in day-to-day business.

We make European-wide decisions all the time, such as the recent action on roaming charges, net neutrality etc. But game changing decisions often need a crisis to push leaders to act. And I hope that after what has happened, what is still happening, and what is sure to happen in the future, we can reach an agreement on the fair distribution of war refugees. Here there is much more at stake, I have found, than whether or not Europe can make a decision. Here it is about human lives. This makes the problem all the more pressing. It is not only a political problem. There is a strong human dimension.

But quotas are not a long term solution. (Or) are they?

The long term solution is peace in the Middle East. And there we can only get peace when there is an agreement among the big powers. Members of the UN security council that have so far disagreed on Syria managed to agree on Iran. This could be a template for action. And when there is a readiness to overcome old rivalries in the Arab world.

Can the EU show the way?

The EU has to do more than just humanitarian help. We have already done a lot for the 4 million in Jordan and Lebanon, and a bit less in Turkey.

What do you mean by more?

There is no military solution. ISIS is a very specific threat, but we can only overcome the crisis in Syria in a definitive way if the big powers can agree. This has to be the focus of European Union foreign policy, not only for the sake of people in the region, the most dangerous place in the world, but also for the stability of our own societies.

In the Middle East and Syria, if the leading powers, beyond the European Union, do not find a common approach, (and) there is no lasting solution, the region will be on fire for a very, very long time. That is the big challenge

The same is true to some extent for Africa. There it was also very important that the French intervened in Mali, for example, otherwise parts of North Africa would be in the hands of Al-Qaeda.

“Anticipate the African migration bomb

 EU foreign policy has to be aimed at peace in the Middle East and development in Africa EU foreign policy has to be aimed at peace in the Middle East and development in Africa

But here development is the major issue. This has to be a focus of our common foreign policy. Africa now has a population of 1 billion. In 30 years, they will have 2 billion. By the end of this century, it will have a population of 4 billion. So there is a huge potential for economic refugees. It is in our interest now, not only for the reason of helping Africa, but in our own interest, to help develop Africa, to support their economic growth, to organise stability. Otherwise, and this is something we can anticipate, the day will come when we are shocked by the number of Africans that are trying to reach our shores. So the lasting efforts of EU foreign policy have to be aimed at peace in the Middle East and development in Africa.

Renzi said the EU is a pupil who doesnt work hard enough, Grybauskaite said the EU is an overgrown teenager other leaders have used other [analogies] to portray the EU.  Are we tapping the full potential which is in front of us in Europe?

There is a crisis of leadership all over the world. There is a big discussion in the United States about the leading role for the US. There is frustration in Russia about its role. That’s why they are trying to impose their agenda on different countries, to show that they are still a big power. But for Europe, one of our big foreign policy achievements was the unanimous decision to place sanctions on Russia. We cannot interfere militarily, so our only available weapon was sanctions.

Let me jump on Russia. Do you think we did the right thing with Moscow, not in terms of sanctions, but in terms of engaging and dialogue? 

Who destabilised the eastern part of Ukraine? Who started the war? It was nothing to do with Europe, nothing to do with the EU. We have to start looking for the responsible countries. Those responsible for the situation. Outside the Union.

Some people have mentioned that with the association agreement, we were not sufficiently political. The Commission went too fast, there wasn’t sufficient contact.

Two things must be said. We were negotiating with an Ukrainian president, who comes from the east and has Russian as his mother tongue. This was not a pro-Western president. Let’s say he was a president who represented all the sensitivities of the east, which was his power base. We were dealing with him, and he was very engaged in the association agreement, going so far as to the initial agreement. 

The problem came when the Russians put pressure on him, preventing him from signing the agreement. He was an unsuspecting person to deal with, representing the part of the country that could be most critical vis-à-vis that kind of agreement.

The second thing to consider is that we had summits with Russia every six months, with Medvedev, then Putin. I have no recollection of them ever giving any sign that the association with Ukraine would be a major game-changing event. Never. Not once.

Instead, they put pressure on Viktor Yanukovych not to sign the agreement in Vilnius. We were fully aware of the step we took, but there was no warning shot from the Russians to prevent this. We were responding to a legitimate demand from a democratically elected government, led by a president from the eastern part of the country.

Whats next on that front?

Next is the implementation, the full implementation, of the Minsk agreement.

Which is not happening

It is not happening in full. There are less people being killed than before, much less, but it’s not being fully implemented. If you ask me for lasting solutions, I won’t say sanctions are.

The comparison with Iran can’t be made, but sanctions did help there. I will not make the comparison with South Africa either. But it certainly played a part. Sanctions are just an instrument and we had no other instruments. We had no military instruments, and pure political talk was not enough anymore.

For the member states, after the annexation of Crimea and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, enough was enough. Increasing pressure was necessary. ‘Soft talk’ was not enough, hard political talk with little impact was also useless. Military intervention had no support. It would’ve provoked a major crisis on European soil. In the end, this was the only way of putting pressure on Russia.

There are ingredients for a lasting solution for Ukraine in the Minsk agreement, not the final agreement, but all the ingredients are there. It’s not just a ceasefire; it’s about what kind of Ukraine the participants in the agreement wanted. A more decentralised Ukraine, a Ukraine where minorities and regions have greater autonomy. It’s part of the solution.

For the future, we have to define what are the external and internal positions of Ukraine in the European landscape. What kind of relations they will have with the Union, with NATO. Also, with their biggest neighbour, Russia. It’s extremely difficult to make Ukraine a stable country. Sanctions are a help, an instrument. Not an aim.

Elections in Greece next week. Should we be concerned?

I think that it’s better to have no position from European leaders on this. The election will show, I think, that a coalition government, in some form, is inevitable. So let’s hope that after the elections and independent of the results, the Greeks have some sort of coalition government, preferably a government of nation union. After all that has happened, this will be difficult. No party will have a majority, certainly. [Alexis] Tsipras, for all intents and purposes didn’t have one, he just had allies. But I think that for Greece, the chances of getting a fourth bailout are really minimal.

I seldom use the term, “last chance”, because in life you never know, but my instinct is that this is an agreement, that was achieved on 30th July, where implementation is essential.

Getting another agreement with the 18 other countries, for a fourth bailout, would be extremely difficult.

Probably impossible. I hope that the Greek political world is fully aware of this. Again, I’m not using strong words, as usual during my career, but I have the feeling that this is something they should keep in mind when a government is being formed after the elections. More than just a Greek power play, the future of the country is at stake.

Frances economic minister called for fiscal transfers in the eurozone. Is this something that you find favourable. How to rebuild solidarity in the EU?

There are transfers already, even in this small European budget. Who is benefitting from it? We have transfers already in the Union. I don’t really understand the concept of a transfer union. In my country, we are federalised, there are huge transfers from the north to the south, via social security. Flanders is more prosperous and contributes a lot more, but the benefits are equal across the country. There are nationalists in the government at the moment. The transfers make up 6% of our GDP. It’s not a template for Europe. from transfers. It’s a reversible process, a way of transferring funds.

Brexit: “Biggest challenge is to have a ‘rational’ debate

My biggest fear is that what they call a Â“migration debate”, includes free movement, which is not the same thing and it interferes in the debateMy biggest fear is that what they call a Â“migration debate”, includes free movement, which is not the same thing and it interferes in the debate

Let me turn to a crisis foretold: Brexit. Cameron has just suffered a defeat after caving into the demands of eurosceptics in his own party. Do you think he can master domestic politics? 

Let’s say that I hope so! With the UK, we have had difficult moments, but we managed each time to keep the UK in the club. We made the budget with the UK. They accepted the terms of the banking union. On other occasions, for instance the nomination of Juncker, the UK didn’t agree, but they saw that they had no allies, except for Orban [Hungarian Prime Minister]. They lost this particular battle. Even though it was a battle that was unnecessary, I thought. There were many other small examples in which we compromised with the UK, which I think we did successfully.

As European Council president you have talked to Mr Cameron extensively. What do you think David wants and what Cameronthe man and the leader – wants?

I’ve known him as a member of the European Council, not as a British politician.

In my opinion that is irrelevant. In politics, if I asked myself, why someone is doing something, I would second guess myself constantly. The only thing that is relevant is what his political position is. What he says as leader of his country, or as a member of the Council, is the only thing that matters.

The UK wants reforms. How far can we go?

Depends on the reform. There is one constraint in the short term, 5-10 years, and that is treaty changes. Organising debates and referenda, in the current climate, in 28 countries, is a Pandora’s Box.

During my mandate, I was completely opposed to treaty changes, with only one being carried out, regarding European Supervisory Mechanism (ESM). This was a very, very small change. Germany was much more open to debate, but I was always opposed, because my feeling was that we took too many risks with the European project.

We had good intentions, but too many risks. So that is a major concern for the UK. Let’s see what we can do to help. What I’m saying is nothing new. The EU has fundamental values that cannot be undermined. Freedom of movement and goods, for example. We have to combat fraud and abuse, but much can be done at national level. In Belgium, we sent back nearly 2,000 French for abusing social benefits. French people! EU citizens. There is room for manoeuvre. For negotiations, we want to know exactly what the UK has in mind. What the negotiating framework will be is not clear. But I hope an agreement is met.

My biggest fear concerns whether we can have a rational debate about this. Rationally speaking, there are no doubts that the economic benefits for the British economy from the single market are huge. There is no need for a debate on this.

Rationally speaking, we also have the historical dimension. Britain was a part of our wars, so it has to be a part of the biggest project ever in Europe – the EU. 
My biggest fear is that what they call a “migration debate”, includes free movement, which is not the same thing and it interferes in the debate. I hope that reason prevails in the end.

Is it possible to give a country an opt-out on an ever closer union?

That would be a treaty change. I’m in favour of an ever closer eurozone.

Will you allow me to get a bit more personal? You were the first president of the European Council. You had to write up your job description. Surely, a Blair would have written a different job description than you did. Looking back what would you have done differently?

The treaties had foreseen almost nothing. There was a lot of room for manoeuvre. But at the end of the day, one has to agree with all 28 members. All sorts of declarations can be made, being “bold”, “ambitious”, “opening wide horizons”, “being visionary” but in the end, at the next summit, you must find an agreement on the European budget, on the climate package, on migration etc.

Let me be bold. Will we ever one day have a president of the European Union?

If it would be a president with the same competencies that the current president of the Council has, or the same competencies as the President of the Commission, then it makes no sense at all. This would create huge expectations, as they would be directly elected, without the instruments to deliver. This would only make sense if there were a fundamental change in the institutions.

At the moment, there is a fine balance between inter-governmental and community action. This would be unchartered waters. Electing someone directly would be counterproductive for the European Union, if they are not provided with competencies comparable to other states.

In the Union, if there is no solution, we are the first to create a new job and we often consider this job creation as a solution to the problem. Our problems are much deeper rooted than this. It is often a false solution. Focusing on a new institution/job/person to save the project is no good. The project is daily business. Without the member states unanimously agreeing, or reaching a special majority, it ends in nothing. 

What was your last Haiku as president of the European Council. Do you remember?

Could be! I made one for tomorrow in fact.

Can I have a peek?

Let’s leave it until tomorrow. It will be the only surprise.

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