"Herman? Who?" was the comment in a British newspaper when Herman Van Rompuy was appointed European Council President. Now he has been awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, for his quiet mediation skills.
Herman Van Rompuy will never forget his first summit as newly-installed president of the European Council. It was mid-February 2010, and in Brussels the snowstorm outside reflected the cold and somber mood of the meeting. It was one of many extraordinary summits held to rescue Greece and the European common currency.
Some people tend to get nervous in crisis situations, but Herman Van Rompuy says he just feels calmer and more focused. Stormy years were ahead for Europe, and the Belgian politician with the unprepossessing image believes he was a successful captain. "Our main task was to survive, to keep the euro alive, to make the euro a stable and strong currency again - and we succeeded," he says. "I will leave with the satisfaction that, although it was very difficult, we managed it in the end."
The 66-year-old kept the 28 heads of state and government on course, churning out seemingly endless compromises. He benefited from years of experience as Prime Minister of Belgium, where he had to hold together a state federation of deeply-divided Flemings and Walloons. In public, Herman Van Rompuy never made snide comments about obstinate leaders – he just smiled. Even in smaller groups he tends to be withdrawn. "I'm always cautious," the EU politican says. "I will be cautious even years after my mandate: It's second nature."
He wasn't particularly visible to the general public, and was sometimes mocked for being "mousy." With his sparse silvery hair and metal-rimmed glasses, he is the image of a benign elderly gentleman, the grandfather-next-door. Hermann Van Rompuy smiles and winks: "They underestimate my charisma," he jokes. Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party leader and member of the European parliament, once accused Van Rompuy of having the charisma of a "damp rag."
In November 2014 the conservative politician will leave the political arena after five years in office as President of the European Council.
"We are irreplaceable until we are replaced," Herman Van Rompuy commented. He enjoys short, pithy statements, like the haikus he writes in Flemish, French, English, German, and even Latin: These Japanese-style poems have just 17 syllables. Apart from collections of poetry, Herman Van Rompuy is the author of several other books. He says he's used to writing: "I feel that it is necessary to communicate."
The former Belgian Prime Minister, who comes across as rather shy, is not fond of speaking in public. At press conferences with the world's leaders, such as a recent event with the US president in Brussels in March, he seemed insecure, choosing to read from a sheet of paper. He prefers to write. "It's better to give your own version of your own journey than to leave it to others," he smiled when presenting his most recent book earlier this year: "So you're sure you have the right version."
Herman Van Rompuy takes pride in the 2014 International Charlemagne Prize of the city of Aachen, which was awarded to him on Thursday (29.05.2014) for his contribution towards saving the euro. He notes that his role model, former Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans, received the prize in 1976, when he himself was a member of Tindemans' staff. "So I am personally touched by the award, and in this respect, I am also his successor," Van Rompuy told DW.
Tindemans taught Van Rompuy to abide by his Christian Democratic convictions, which are rooted in the Catholic faith. Even today, Van Rompuy regularly takes time off for a monastery retreat.
Van Rompuy sees the Charlemagne Prize as the high point of his career. He says he had no part in the other major award, the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to the EU in 2012, adding: "I never would have imagined I would stand on a stage in Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize." He adds that the prize wasn't really meant for the current generation of EU politicians, but for their predecessors: "It was a prize honoring Europe as a project of peace."
A free man
Taking stock just months before he leaves office, the longtime politician says he didn't always make the right choices, and he can't say whether he would do everything exactly the same if he had to do it all again. "As the Bible says, there is a time for everything," he says. Now his time as a politician is coming to an end, and by December 1 he will be a free man, which he says means he will take off his tie, put on a leather jacket and spend a lot of time playing with his grandchildren.
Van Rompuy reminds us that the task of building Europe is not finished. Its problems are not all in the past, and they never will be, he warns. "We live in a world that calls for constant change. We have to constantly adapt to our competitors, in Europe and in the world." You always have to work on economic potential, competitiveness and creating jobs, Van Rompuy says, but adds: "It's an eternal task for every leading politician in every country - and that includes Europe."