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Profile: First EU President Herman van Rompuy

Herman Van Rompuy at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, 30 October 2009
Economist, blogger, haiku writer and Belgium's PM for less than a year

The EU's first permanent president, Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy, is a camera-shy man who has been catapulted from relative obscurity.

After his selection at a Brussels summit, he stressed his credentials as a consensus politician and made it clear he would fulfil the role of a chairman rather than a globe-trotting statesman.

His tasks include liaising with EU leaders and arranging the bloc's annual summits. He says tackling climate change and lowering EU unemployment rates are among his priorities.

The centre-right leader has a reputation as a good negotiator with a self-deprecating sense of humour, which helped him to hold together a fractious coalition government at home.

Shortly after his presidential appointment was announced, the 62-year-old drily remarked on previous US complaints about the EU lacking a central go-to figure. "I'm anxiously awaiting the first phone call," he said.

But his appointment may be bad news for Belgium's troubled coalition of Dutch- and French-speaking parties, which could fall apart without his careful stewardship.

In linguistically divided Belgium, he is seen as a unifying force, taking an even-handed approach to resolving conflicts - a skill that is expected to serve him well in Europe's top job.

Focus on federalism

Mr Van Rompuy has pledged to be discreet in his new role. He is little known outside Belgium and has attended only two European summits.

Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe
Herman Van Rompuy
Speaking as an opposition politician

With such a limited international reputation, critics say he will struggle to command attention when he travels on behalf of Europe.

But his modest demeanour belies outspoken political beliefs. An avowed federalist, he has called for national symbols within the EU to be replaced by European symbols.

He has also called for a tax on financial transactions within the bloc to fund the EU.

A veteran politician from Belgium's Flemish Christian Democrat party, he has been outspoken in the past in opposition to Turkey joining the EU. He warned it could dilute Europe's Christian heritage.

"Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe," he said as an opposition politician five years ago.

"The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."

Haiku writer

Mr Van Rompuy was originally reluctant to take on the post of Belgian prime minister at the end of 2008. He replaced Yves Leterme, who resigned amid a financial scandal last December after just nine months in the job.

Riven by post-election squabbling, Belgium had already been through two prime ministers in 12 months and seemed in danger of splitting apart, due to the arguments over devolution plans between the Dutch- and French-speaking parties.

Three waves roll
Along the harbour
The trio's home

EU Trio-presidency
Herman Van Rompuy haiku

Something of a moderate in Belgium's increasingly polarised politics, Mr Van Rompuy was eventually persuaded to take on the job by Belgian King Albert II.

He was appointed prime minister, having held the position of president of the lower house of parliament since July 2007.

The trained economist inherited a fragile government coalition and a nation facing a global economic crisis that had crippled Belgian banking giant Fortis.

He had previously served as budget minister in the Christian Democrat-led government from 1993 to 1999, during which time he took a tough stance on balancing the books, drastically reducing the country's public debt.

Before that, Mr Van Rompuy was leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats between 1988 and 1993.

He has penned several books - mainly on social and political issues - and is also an avid blogger and haiku writer.

He is said to sometimes compose the 17-syllable Japanese-style poems during political meetings and has been known to read out his compositions at such gatherings.

One offering on Mr Van Rompuy's website is called EU Trio-presidency, but any message therein about his political ambitions is well concealed:

"Three waves roll

Along the harbour

The trio's home."

National pride

Before his appointment, people on the streets of Brussels voiced mixed emotions about the prospect of their prime minister becoming Europe's figurehead.

A sense of national pride was countered by one of foreboding about how Belgium's government would cope without him.

A poll by Euronews found respondents in the capital reluctant to lose a peace-maker "indispensable in keeping the peace between the different communities".

"It would be a pity," said one resident. "It would mean political instability in Belgium. A good thing for Europe a bad thing for Belgium!"

Before entering politics, Mr Van Rompuy worked at the Belgian central bank from 1972 to 1975.

One of a family of politicians, his younger brother, Eric Van Rompuy, is also a politician for the CD&V, while his sister, Christine Van Rompuy, is a member of the Workers Party of Belgium.

Herman Van Rompuy is married with four children.



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Can divided Belgium hold together?
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