EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy is handing over the baton to Polish ex-prime minister Donald Tusk today (1 December). In contrast to the European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, who held numerous farewell speeches and interviews in his last weeks in office, it is a minimalist event for the outgoing EU Council President: merely a handshake, a few remarks, a little drink with the European Council staff. The 67-year old Belgian politician little-known outside his country and with no global ambitions, who once called himself “a grey mouse” is leaving politics altogether.
His legacy overlapped with the euro zone crisis during which Herman Van Rompuy chaired one meeting after another of EU leaders trying to contain the ‘financial and economic mess’. The legacy of his two terms may not be tantamount to a clear-cut success, with unemployment still soaring in Greece and Spain, the economy remaining sluggish, euro-skepticism still issues in several EU Member States. Yet, the positives may still outweigh the negatives: the euro zone stayed intact, a permanent bailout fund is in place, and there is more scrutiny over national budgets, even though the rules seem to be quite “flexible”, as austerity is now giving way more to the emphasis on investments.
When Herman Van Rompuy was chairing the first summit where EU leaders for the first time discussed the idea of bailing out Greece, one EU official recalls that “He was unassuming, he was interested in getting things done. Van Rompuy didn’t care about protocol details such as who gets to speak first on stage, him or Barroso.” And yet it was not Barroso, but Van Rompuy, who shaped the EU agenda, who brokered many deals, including on the EU budget, and who drafted several plans on how the euro zone architecture should look like to avoid future crises. And the outgoing Council President who stood at the center stage of EU politics for the past five years is reportedly now looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and teaching a few classes at the College of Europe and other universities in Belgium.