Van Rompuy’s last message: France must lead Europe again

Herman Van Rompuy [Chatham House/Flickr]

In what is considered to be his outgoing speech, which he delivered at Sciences Po in Paris on Tuesday (25 November), European Council President Herman Van Rompuy urged France to regain confidence and drive Europe into the next era.

“France needs Europe, because France can only be big in Europe. But Europe too needs France more than ever,” he added, stressing the need for a confident France that is economically strong and free of pessimists of all kinds.

“It will be up to your nation to propose new projects and draw up a sense of direction, while animating again the common work for the future of the continent,” he said.

In his five years at the helm of the European Council, the mild-mannered former Belgian prime minister has managed to keep Europe together, despite many hurdles, starting with the euro crisis, ending with the struggle for peace in Ukraine.

Van Rompuy’s appointment baffled many Europeans in 2009 as they hoped for a ‘Blair’ leading the Union, while his selection highlighted the European Union’s reluctance to choose a high-profile president who can see eye-to-eye with other world leaders. Van Rompuy’s low-profile style made him appear to be more of a consensus builder.

At the beginning of his first mandate, Van Rompuy chose a Catholic forum to outline his vision. “No realpolitik without idealpolitik,” he said at the time. He managed on realpolitik, less on idealpolitik, some might say.

>> Read: EU president picks Catholic forum to outline vision

Now, leaving the scene, he emphasized that his consensus building efforts paid off, particularly at a moment of crisis.

“All starts with establishing trust between the men and women gathered around the table,” he said, outlining the governance structure he put in place to make sure that all EU leaders felt a sense of belonging and influence on policy-making.

Conceding that somehow the EU failed to maintain a link with European citizens, Van Rompuy offered three guiding principles to his successor, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk: speak the truth, create hope and restore confidence—among countries, institutions and decision-makers.

Saying that Europe has become an inspiration for disenchantment rather than hope, Van Rompuy explained that for the first time in the European construction, citizens have understood that globalization has unveiled a new reality – a new Europe in a new world. “Speaking the truth starts with acknowledging this evidence: We can’t go back.”

Turning to the danger of populism, spurred by a sense of anxiety and fear, he said it feeds on the illusion that closing the borders can halt the course of history. “Facing today’s world changes, people know that some things in our societies need to change,” he added, contending that globalization is not the one to blame, but the lack of timely reforms.

Among the future challenges lying ahead beyond the economy and Ukraine, Van Rompuy singled out the UK issue. “It is first and foremost a British debate. It is up to the British people to decide,” whether to stay in the EU or not, he noted, arguing that at the moment the UK in neither in the euro nor in the Schengen area, two of the pillars of the European construction.

Van Rompuy has always been in favour of further integration, in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis.

But “this doesn’t and shouldn’t upset the original agreement at the heart of the EU, in particular for those member states which have not and will not join the currency union,” Van Rompuy stressed in reference to Britain, opening the door for a ‘two-speed Europe’, he said earlier this year.

>>Read: Van Rompuy says door open for ‘two-speed Europe’.

Speaking at Sciences Po, Van Rompuy added: “Without Britain, Europe will be wounded, amputated even, so we need to do everything to avoid it, but Europe will survive. Without France, Europe – the European idea – would die.”

On 1 December, Van Rompuy will step down and end his political career. He will start teaching at College of Europe (in English), and at the Belgian university of Louvain-la-Neuve, in French.

European Council president Herman Van Rompuy announced last year that his EU mandate, which expires on 1 December 2014, will mark the end of his political career.

Van Rompuy was the first person to be permanent president of the European Council. The job was created by the Lisbon Treaty, nominally to give the Union more international visibility and continuity in its action.

Van Rompuy's family is well represented on the Belgian political scene.

His brother Eric is a member of the Flemish Parliament from Christian Democratic party, or CD&V. His sister Tine is a member of a small leftist party, the Workers’ Party of Belgium. His son Peter also sits in the Flemish Parliament. And his wife Geertrui is a deputy mayor in the commune of Rhode-Saint-Genèse where the family lives.

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