BRUSSELS Herman Achille Van Rompuy was no household name when he was appointed the first president of Europe two years ago. A former budget minister and central bank employee, he had served, reluctantly, as Belgian prime minister for barely a year. A provocateur once denounced him as having the "charisma of a damp rag."
Two years on, Van Rompuy is still a conundrum to many. But as the continent gropes this week for a solution to its worst economic crisis since World War Two, the unassuming Belgian has been thrust into one of the most demanding diplomatic missions of recent decades. While many expected his office to be largely ceremonial, he has been charged with brokering a grand bargain among those who hold the bloc's fate in their hands: the 27 countries of the European Union and in particular the 17 that share the single currency.
To his critics, Van Rompuy is a grey intellectual, lacking in the kind of take-charge dynamism the moment demands, a symbol of all that is wrong with Europe. To his admirers, he is reason to hope: a smart and thoughtful leader who grasps the gravity of the crisis and is perfectly placed to smooth egos and negotiate a solution.
Van Rompuy, 64, said he sees his role as "neither a spectator, nor a dictator, but a facilitator". To some ears, that may sound like a parody of eurospeak. But in an institution whose very existence was built on compromise, his role is crucial. Van Rompuy faces what is probably his most challenging test this Thursday and Friday, December 8-9, when EU leaders gather for a summit on the sovereign debt crisis that in the past two years has consumed Greece, Ireland and Portugal, cast a shadow over far larger economies and now threatens the very survival of the currency union.
What emerges from interviews with Van Rompuy and more than a dozen other figures involved in resolving Europe's problems is a portrait of a man determinedly trying to keep on top of a crisis whose severity and speed, he admits, took him and his fellow leaders by surprise.
Caught between personalities as forceful as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's frenetic president, Nicolas Sarkozy, Van Rompuy has tallied a succession of diplomatic breakthroughs -- many of which have been followed by dizzying setbacks. It has been a nerve-wracking two years -- "so, so difficult," he said at one point during an interview. Those difficult moments included what he says was the worst of all, in May 2010, when a do-or-die deal to prop up Greece nearly collapsed amid misunderstanding and mistrust between the French and German leaders.
Such moments underline how, to the extent Europe's titular leader has power, it lies in his ability to cajole and convince. "You have to be very patient, because you have to respect everybody," Van Rompuy said in the interview, in which he offered one of the most extensive and intimate accounts of his tenure in office to date. "Even if he knows he is the biggest player or the smallest player -- they are all part of the game."
Van Rompuy is known for his fondness for writing Haiku poetry. As the inaugural president of the European Council, which brings together the EU's leaders and is meant to hammer out agreements and set the strategic direction of the union, his main job is to find harmony. He may not be the most powerful person in the room -- that's Merkel -- nor nearly as intimidating as the financial markets. But Van Rompuy is the vital go-between, pushing Germany and France to agree on a way forward and then working to corral consensus from the other nations.
Karel Pinxten, a former Belgian defense minister and member of Van Rompuy's domestic political party, has seen how he operates firsthand.
"He will know what his opponent really wants and what that person needs to get from the negotiating table," Pinxten said. "He is somebody who immediately knows where he needs to get to but he will never take the shortest route."
"ALMOST A MONK"
The role of European Council president was created by the Lisbon Treaty, Europe's semi-constitution, which came into force at the end of 2009 following more than eight years of complex and sometimes desperate negotiations. The treaty was designed to streamline decision-making, create a stronger and more united Europe, and allow the world's biggest trading bloc to punch its weight on the international stage.
Van Rompuy's appointment came after weeks of speculation that the job could go to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Some viewed the choice as a calculated decision by heads of state reluctant to be outshone. Others felt it made sense to appoint a decision-maker from the heart of Europe, someone accustomed to quietly forging consensus.
"Europe has decided to put in place a president of the European Union who can to some extent be the honest broker among the heads of state," William Kennard, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union told reporters recently.
"We don't have any illusions that there'll ever be any one phone number you can call to resolve any issue facing the European Union. But the Lisbon Treaty has enabled us to have a single permanent interlocutor."
For many years, until his workload became too heavy, Van Rompuy spent a day or two every year on retreat at Affligem Abbey, an 11th-century Benedictine monastery northwest of Brussels. There he would read, write and pray with the monks, 17 of whom still reside inside its imposing red-brick walls.
Brother George, the monk in charge of visitors and the nearby gift shop, describes Van Rompuy as someone who fit naturally into the pastoral surroundings, enjoying the calm of the monastery's library and eating in silence in the austere, vaulted-ceiling refectory.
"He's almost a monk," said Brother George with a shrug. "It's special to have him, but he is himself. He's a very calm, down-to-earth man."
MAKING THE DIFFERENCE
Van Rompuy grew up in Etterbeek, a predominantly Flemish-speaking neighborhood in largely French-speaking Brussels. That upbringing perhaps made it easier for him to bridge Belgium's linguistic and cultural divides and, more recently, Europe's. He attended an elite high school where he had an intense grounding in Latin, Greek, philosophy and literature. An education, he said, that shapes his thinking on critical issues to this day -- including the debt crisis.
"For me it's absolutely crucial," he told Reuters in his offices in the red marble Justus Lipsius building, the headquarters of the European Council, named for a 16th-century Belgian humanist. "If you ask me what is helpful in my political life, it is making the difference, or the distinction, between what is essential and what is superfluous. It's as simple as that."
He pays careful attention to what's said and what's left unsaid during negotiations, he said. "And without my Greek and Latin humanities, I would never have managed this. That's how I live this."
Fellow students remember him showing a remarkable degree of reflection from an early age, as well as an uncanny ability to parse arguments. Paul De Grauwe, a leading Belgian economist who was at high school and university with Van Rompuy, describes him as an intellectual, but one firmly rooted in the real world.
"Given the context in which he has to perform now, it was a very good background for him," said De Grauwe, a professor at the Catholic University of Leuven and a former visiting scholar at the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Federal Reserve. "He's a very clever politician, the kind who waits for the others to make a mistake and then makes his move."
That's exactly what happened in late 2008 when the Belgian government collapsed. Seemingly unbridgeable differences between the French- and Dutch-speaking communities threatened to split the country. The Belgian king asked Van Rompuy to try to form a government, but the politician resisted, telling rivals that he didn't want the job. The more he told them no, the more each party insisted, until eventually all of them were asking him to be prime minister. Within a week -- lightning speed in Belgian politics -- he had a consensus and was installed in office.
"He knows that the spotlight under which politicians stand is artificial light," said Pinxten, the Belgian politician. "I've seen a party congress where people stood up in fury against him. He dealt with it stoically. He's a man who doesn't allow himself to be destabilized quickly. He is a man with a sufficiently long-term view to look through the madness of the day."
Van Rompuy's introduction to his job as Europe's president was tough. Within days of starting on January 1, 2010, he was briefed on secret talks that had been going on between civil servants to try to find a solution to Greece's debt problems. At that point, while well aware of Athens' troubles, he and his team of advisers had little idea of how they would spread over the following 18 months.
"I entered into an undiscovered country," he said. "We underestimated at that time what was going to happen further on. We had to deal with the Greek problem, the necessary contacts with the Greek government and so on, but it became clear in the weeks and months afterwards ... that it was what we now call a systemic crisis, and we discovered the word contagion."
Van Rompuy called an emergency summit of EU leaders. The mid-February meeting was a first test of his negotiating and consensus-building skills. The chief goal was to get Germany and France, the two largest economies in the euro zone and the bloc's political heavyweights, to agree on a way to help Greece. Van Rompuy would then have to work on getting the other 25 leaders behind the deal.
Just before the summit, he met Sarkozy and Merkel in his offices, where the walls are hung with works by contemporary Belgian artists, including one piece depicting a phrase in Flemish that reads: 'What is complete is never done.'
"I saw the French president coming in to this very office, and then the German chancellor, and they had no solution ... the situation was completely blocked," Van Rompuy said, recalling the talks which included then Greek prime minister, George Papandreou.
Anticipating a stalemate, he had prepared a compromise text and presented it to the three of them.
"I put it on the table, and Sarkozy told me right away, 'I agree.' For Germany, with some slight modifications, it went well, and I had my first agreement. But then I had to go to the rest of the European Council, explaining that I had an agreement with two or three players and asking the rest to agree to it."
They did, giving Van Rompuy his first breakthrough. The relief lasted just days. Beginning a pattern that has marked the crisis ever since, the last-minute deal -- little more than a commitment by the euro zone countries to do whatever was necessary to help Greece, should it ask -- was picked apart by financial markets.
Pressure grew for something more substantial. The problem was that the Greek government had not formally asked for assistance; until it did, Merkel insisted, nothing could be done.
Athens finally requested aid at the end of April, 2010, and the euro zone leaders scrambled to get a rescue deal together. On May 7, after all-night talks, they agreed to create the European Financial Stability Facility; two days later the euro zone's finance ministers put a figure on the fund's capacity -- 750 billion euros.
The experience -- three days of intense negotiation including a race to finalize a deal before financial markets reopened -- included a debilitating Friday night that Van Rompuy describes as perhaps the toughest of the job so far.
"We started the meeting without a real agreement between France and Germany and we ended the meeting with the feeling that this was not the appropriate answer," he said, adding that there was initially no financial means to help Greece. "That was a very, very difficult moment."
It has not stopped. In 16 summits over the last two years -- double the number scheduled in normal times -- the Council led by Van Rompuy has been the focal point of decision-making, or lack thereof.
Greece has received two bailout packages worth a total of 240 billion euros, and the crisis has enveloped Ireland, which took a 90 billion euro bailout in November 2010, and Portugal, whose 78 billion euro, three-year program followed six months later. It has also severely rattled Spain, Italy, France, Belgium and other member states.
Every step has required weeks of intense discussion, and ultimately agreement among all 17 euro zone leaders and the International Monetary Fund. There's the constant threat that a wrong decision could cause the 13-year-old single currency to unravel.
To outsiders, the endless meetings and summits and crisis talks have at times become a worrying joke, proof that the half century-old European project is a badly designed mess.
"When you look at the vast problems Europe is facing, you're crying out for someone with drive and dynamism to grab the reins. Van Rompuy is not that man, it's deeply underwhelming," said one British banker who follows efforts to resolve the debt crisis closely.
But one of the keys to his role, Van Rompuy insists, "is to respect everybody, and to respect everybody is to listen, and that takes time. You need some patience to listen very carefully... I don't know whether I wait for the others to make mistakes, but you have to be patient, and I am so patient that the other ones become impatient.
"When we take a decision as a group, they have to go back to defend all this, because it's always a compromise. That's why in some way it lasts longer than it needs to."
It goes beyond that. In the end -- and this has become more and more apparent the longer the crisis has dragged on -- it is financial markets that need to be convinced.
"We can have political compromises, but if they are not digested or accepted by the markets, then we have a problem," Van Rompuy said. Market forces are now helping some leaders confront hard facts: "I have said in a totally different context that ideology or ideas are not governing the world, facts are. At a certain moment the facts are so powerful that you have to give up all your previous positions, ideological viewpoints, brilliant ideas, because you have to face the facts. We have to again be patient and the facts will do the work."
It helps that Van Rompuy has a way of using those facts.
At a euro zone summit two months ago, leaders worried about whether Italy could reform fast enough to fix its finances. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told the meeting it had always been his dream to make the structural adjustments everyone wanted. For a decade all he had longed for was to overhaul the economy, he said, but it had not been possible because the communists and social democrats had blocked his efforts. After the Italian stopped speaking and the room fell quiet, Van Rompuy turned to him in front of the others and said: "Silvio, it's time to make your dreams come true."
"IF WE SURVIVE"
Van Rompuy loves Haiku, the three-line Japanese poetic form that aims to distill a moment in crystalline images. In 2010, he published a collection of his own Haiku in three languages. He continues to produce at least one poem a month, often posted on his Facebook page or Twitter account.
His most recent, posted in November, captures the unrest of autumn:
"A boy kicks in
A lot of dead leaves.
What disturbed the peace."
Such erudite passions are one reason many greeted his appointment with derision.
"We were told that when we had a president, we'd see a giant global political figure," Britain's Nigel Farage, a right wing, eurosceptic member of the European Parliament declared in a speech to the chamber in February 2010, as Van Rompuy sat just across the aisle from him.
"The man would be the political leader for 500 million people," Farage gesticulated dismissively towards the European Council president. "Well, I'm afraid that all we got was you. I don't want to be rude, but you know, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk."
Most MEPs booed him and the Briton was later fined by the president of the European Parliament for his remarks. But the speech captured the frustration among some had with Van Rompuy's appointment. When the assault began, Van Rompuy looked stunned; later he quietly shrugged it off.
Nearly two years on, Farage is still unsettled by Van Rompuy's intense pro-Europeanism. But he credits him in other ways. "Oh God, he's certainly bright and he's certainly clever," he told Reuters. "You see him in meetings and he takes people on face-to-face. But he's a backroom boy. He's not a man of charisma or presence, and in my mind he will gladly abolish democracy for this euro-dream."
For his part, the Belgian describes his mind as "compartmentalized". The moment he leaves his office, he is no longer at work. When he is walking his dog, he is just walking his dog. At the weekend, when he is with his children and grandchildren, he does not let the crisis crowd his thoughts.
That ability, he said, helps him stay calm no matter how chaotic the situation. It's an approach that has quietly earned him support, from heads of state down. While he works most closely with Berlin and Paris, he also visits as many leaders as possible ahead of each summit, and did so before he was appointed European Council president.
This methodical approach has won Van Rompuy praise from diplomats from countries as far removed as Spain and Sweden, and his initial two-and-a-half year term is expected to be extended next June, as Europe's leaders seek continuity.
When he can, Van Rompuy likes to think about what sort of Europe will emerge from the trials of the past two years. "If we survive this, and we will survive this, it will be considered a very important period because we had to correct what went wrong from the very start of the euro zone," he said, referring to the years since the single currency was introduced as something of a lost decade.
"If we survive this, then we will have a totally different euro zone, and not a totally different European Union, but at least a different European Union. We have to rebuild all this. And that, that has made the job so difficult. So difficult."
(Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)