Guardian of Trust
On 1 December 2014 Herman Van Rompuy will hand over his office as the permanent President of the European Council to the former Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk. In his five-year term of office he steered the European Union through its biggest crisis in close collaboration with the President of the Commission José Manuel Barroso.
A Flemish Christian Democrat, in November 2009 Herman Van Rompuy was elected as the first permanent President of the European Union and took up office with the commencement of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009. In 2012 he was re-elected for a second term of two and a half years. Due to his long-standing experience in Belgian politics, most recently as Prime Minister, he was well practised in the art of striking balances and forging new relationships. As President of the European Union he considered his main responsibility to be the “Guardian of Trust” for the 28 Heads of State and Government. In this respect his guiding principle was the common good of Europe, which was more important than the interests of individual states. He visited the capital cities of all the Member States at least once a year.
In the book “Europe in the Storm”, published in early 2014, Van Rompuy took stock after five years at the head of the European Council. At the heart of this was the economic and financial crisis, which for him posed the greatest threat to European unity. Van Rompuy compares his crisis management to the construction of a lifeboat in the middle of a storm on the open sea. In this respect he proved himself to be a master of compromise, where it wasn’t about winning or losing, but instead about ensuring that all countries emerged from the negotiations as winners. He describes his self-image as a bridge-builder and reconciler.
A high point in Van Rompuys’ term of office was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union in December 2012, which he accepted in Stockholm together with EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso and the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. His speech was worded in very personal terms: “In politics, as in life, reconciliation is the hardest thing. It is goes beyond mere forgiving and forgetting or simply remaining silent. If we think about what France and Germany have experienced! And then this step. Every time I hear the word “Freundschaft, amitié, friendship” I am touched – it is an unusual word for international agreements. But the determination not to allow history to repeat itself, to dare to do something radically new, was so strong that new words had to be found”.
Herman Van Rompuy has never made a secret of his deep-rooted Christian faith. He was a pupil of St. John Berchmans Jesuit College in Brussels and studied philosophy and business administration at the Catholic University in Leuven. He regularly goes on retreats for reflection in the Benedictine Monastery of Afflighem near Brussels. He once described his faith as “an experience of the desire for God”. He continued: “There are so many contradictions between the world as it is and the idea that someone desired it out of love. That is a reason to have faith: there has to be someone that resolves this contradiction”. He understood Christian policy to be a compromise between ethical idealism and political realism. He entitled one of his speeches “No Realpolitik without ideal policies”. For him politics is not just a battle for power, but also actively serving the people.
On 29 May 2014 Herman Van Rompuy was awarded the Charlemagne Prize of the City of Aachen “to honour his services as a mediator, consensus builder and initiator of European unification”. He brought some of his grandchildren with him to his last EU summit on 24 October, and they also appear on the “family photo” of the Heads of State and Government. He once used the example of Winston Churchill to describe the difference between a statesman and a politician as: a politician thinks about the next elections, a statesman about the next generation. Herman Van Rompuy was a politician who also thought about the next generation. Through his personal integrity and enormous integrative power he has made a significant contribution to the consolidation and further development of the European Union.
Martin Maier SJ
Translated from the original text in German