EU president picks Catholic forum to outline vision

Herman Van Rompuy, Europe’s newly-appointed president, spelt out his political vision before hundreds of people at a Brussels gathering of the ‘Grandes Conferences Catholiques’ shortly before Christmas.

“No realpolitik without idealpolitik,” said Van Rompuy in his speech, delivered in French at the Brussels Catholic gathering, providing an insight into the thinking of the newly-appointed EU president. 

The discrete public outing, on 7 December, came despite a rigid media curfew following his designation as first permanent president of the European Council, a position created by the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December. 

“Politics is about the real happiness of mankind,” Van Rompuy told the conference. “Politics is the struggle for power but also action at the service of men and women in order to give them opportunities for well-being,” a composed Van Rompuy told his audience, insisting that policy measures need to be carved out on the underlying assumption that they should constitute progress for humankind. 

The EU president’s political thinking is rooted in the philosophical school of ‘personalism’. Although the concept is somewhat difficult to define as a philosophical and theological movement, primarily due to many different philosophical schools, they all have at their core one central standpoint which serves as a canonical touchstone. 

For Van Rompuy, the concept lies strictly in the quest to balance political realism with ethical idealism, a view he shares with French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.

Rational politics needs to rest on sound ideals, Van Rompuy said, but without too much fanfare or deafening publicity in order to avoid falling into the trap of irreparable rhetoric, which can alienate the electorate in the long run. 

In other words, action cannot stand without solid and thorough ideals. But shrewd political leaders need to take into account external events too. “Circumstances can provide an opportunity as good ideals mature according to circumstances,” he said, stressing that political leaders need to be able to seize the opportunity to act. He cited as an example former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who used the fall of the Berlin Wall to unify his country. 

Economic crisis: More solidarity in a new EU order 

For Van Rompuy, the current economic crisis, triggered by the 2008 financial market meltdown, can be seen as an opportunity. But he said politicians should refrain from political arrogance and stop believing that a new society can be created only through legislation and regulation. 

In a globalised world, science, economics and culture can give much more substance to civilisation and society than politics can, he said. 

For him, the philosophical concept of ‘personalism’ can give additional meaning to people’s lives by placing individuals inside social units like the family or civil society, “because it is within these auto-organisations that a human being becomes a persona,” he argued. 

Governments, he said, should therefore support what he describes as citizens’ auto-organisations: schools, theatres, families and communities. “Human beings draw their dignity – and feeling of belonging – from their ability to integrate changing circumstances in their lives.” 

According to Van Rompuy, solidarity is key to this vision of society. “Our political system [referring to democracy] cannot function without community spirit, without a sense of the bonum commune,” he stressed. 

Calm resolve 

Although his thinking may seem a bit too philosophical to some, a number of Belgian scholars have dissected his leadership and political behaviour, which seems to go hand-in-hand with his political thinking. 

Using a technique developed in the US, Tobias Van Assche, a Belgian post-doctoral fellow at the University of Antwerp, published a study confirming Van Rompuy’s image as someone who focuses on negotiating and troubleshooting, who is not driven by a personal need for power and prestige, but is rather very sensitive to his environment and does what he considers acceptable given the circumstances. 

According to the Leadership Trait Analysis (LTA) used by Van Assche, Van Rompuy scores low on distrust of others and in-group bias, which means he does not perceive the world as a threatening place. He sees conflicts as context-specific, which must be reacted to on a case-by-case basis. 

In short, Van Rompuy acts as an opportunistic or collegial leader, depending on the situation with which he is confronted, according to Van Assche. “His personal motto is ‘rustige vastheid’ or calm resolve. He will work within the limits as he perceives them, and move forward when the opportunity presents itself,” the scholar said. 

On his first day as president of the European Union (4 January), Herman Van Rompuy called a special summit to seek a way out of the current crisis and start mapping the EU's economic and social agenda for the next decade (EURACTIV 05/01/10).

At a summit on 20 November, EU heads of state and government chose Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the EU's first permanent president and Briton Catherine Ashton as high representative for foreign affairs (EURACTIV 20/11/09). 

A trained economist, Van Rompuy took office on 1 January 2010, after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. Van Rompuy's main task as EU president will be to chair the bloc's summit meetings for a two-and-a-half year term, renewable once, and represent the Union on the world stage. 

Before going into politics, Van Rompuy worked at the Belgian central bank from 1972 to 1975 and had stints in government in the 1980s and 1990s. As budget minister, he helped drive down Belgium’s debt from a peak of 135% of gross domestic product in 1993. It fell to below 100% of GDP in 2003. 

On July 2007, Van Rompuy was elected president of the Belgian House of Representatives, after his party, the centre-right Christian Democratic and Flemish party (CD&V), won the elections. 

Following a divisive political crisis in Belgium that triggered the resignation of then Prime Minister Yves Leterme, he was asked in December 2008 to form a new government. 

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