A Wednesday afternoon discussion with Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, began with a fourteen-syllable break from the World Leader’s Forum weeklong stream of diplomatic rhetoric, written by the pen of the guest of honor himself:
tongues, towers and gods.
I search my way.
But moderator Victoria de Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia, questioned whether it was truly a respite from political posturing. She began by venturing that the publication of Haiku, Van Rompuy’s first book of poetry, might actually be a “strong public maneuver” concealed under the contemplative guise of the Japanese poetry – a coming out, of sorts, for Brussels’ faceless bureaucratic throngs.
While Van Rompuy insisted that poetry was simply a personal hobby, he acknowledged confusion over his public role, which indeed lends itself to caricature – the “American myth,” he said, of a reclusive, “Eurocratic” powerbroker.
Appointed in 2009 by the European Union’s then-26 heads of state (there will soon be 28), Van Rompuy is bound to their decisions – a degree of separation between his office and European public opinion that he insisted is good and necessary. But he also spoke of wrestling the Council, which must act unanimously, into consensus. “I’ve stayed in good shape for a man of 66,” he joked.
“In my own country I’m a hero,” said the former Belgian prime minister. “I’m the ‘President of Europe.’” Though he vigorously refutes that label, he noted it’s never good to fend off compliments.
Van Rompuy was reluctant to describe the specifics of EU policy in its member states, largely deflecting the audience’s more speculative questions on Spain and Britain, and of sensitive issues in US-EU relations.
In response to a question on the EU’s response to revelations over the NSA’s electronic spying program, Van Rompuy would only say that the EU and US are engaged in dialogue through two working groups. “Some member states left only 20 years ago a system in which everybody was spying on everybody,” he said, emphasizing the extreme sensitivity of the issue to Europeans.
On Germany’s elections, however, Van Rompuy was quick to laud Merkel’s victory as “exceptional.” “She did it without spin doctors, without a huge communication strategy, without lying,” he said. But more importantly, all while navigating the economic crisis.
De Grazia shaped Van Rompuy’s thoughts on Germany into a broader discussion on the EU’s strategies to combat depressed growth and surging unemployment figures. He downplayed what many consider the outsized role of Merkel’s Germany in shaping policy. What De Grazia referred to as German-driven “austerity,” Van Rompuy rephrased as a pan-European policy of “sound public finances” – a framework, in his view, for the continued integration of the EU policies and for consistent growth down the road.
He insisted on the necessity of interim growth strategies, such as the pan-European plan to offer short-term employment to all workers who have finished school or training programs, while these structural reforms take shape. Many have criticized the plan as a wasteful stopgap.
Van Rompuy was also candid on the issue of EU expansion, reiterating his support for the process of re-opening talks with Turkey despite the recent crackdown on protestors in Taksim Square and elsewhere around the country. He described the country as at least “more democratic than most.”
At the very least, he said, the continued interest of Turkey and other countries located on the edges of the EU could be seen as proof that “the EU is still sexy.”