Leo Tindemans: former Belgian Prime Minister

He is remembered for his visionary ideas on European integration

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Former Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans was a fixture in his home country’s politics from the 1960s onwards, but his influence extended far further as one of Europe’s grandees whose ideas and application gave the emerging European Union direction and unity.

It was in 1975, during his unsettled four years at the head of the Belgian government, that Tindemans published a visionary report for a “people’s Europe” for the then European Economic Community. His proposals for a powerful European Commission president, a stronger European Parliament, more majority voting, common foreign policy, economic and monetary union, were seen by many as a federalist fantasy. Yet though they were given short shrift at the time, most have come to pass.

Tindemans was born in 1922 in the Antwerp suburb of Zwijndrecht, son of a port mechanic. He was part of a generation of politicians for whom the Second World War was a formative experience: when the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, the 18-year-old Tindemans fled to France and watched helplessly as British forces retreated chaotically from Dunkirk.

He studied economics and politics at Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven universities, and his first job was as a journalist at the Gazet Van Antwerpen daily newspaper, followed by a short stint as a civil servant in Belgium’s agriculture ministry.

A Flemish Catholic, Tindemans was 36 when he won his first major political position, as general secretary of the united Flemish and Francophone Christian Democrats, the CVP-PSC. He was elected to parliament three years later, in 1961, to the Chamber of Representatives, where he remained for the following 28 years, interrupted by two years in the European Parliament.

He was also active locally, as mayor between 1965 and 1973 of his hometown of Edegem, the Antwerp suburb where he was living when he died. While the war helped forge his belief in European unity, his internationalist credentials were bolstered by a year in Harvard in 1963, where he befriended Henry Kissinger.

Tindemans rose rapidly through the ranks of the Flemish Christian Democrats, the CVP, in the 1960s. Appointed Dutch-speaking Minister of Community Relations in 1968, he co-drafted with his French-speaking counterpart a plan for Belgium’s linguistic, administrative and economic decentralisation. The plan was abandoned during a period of short-lived governments, with Tindemans being named Minister of Agriculture and Middle Class Affairs in 1972, then Deputy Prime Minister and Budget Minister in 1973.

After early elections in 1974,Tindemans emerged from coalition talks as Prime Minister, heading a minority government with the business-oriented Liberals. It was at a European summit later that year that British Prime Minister Harold Wilson suggested Tindemans should draft a report on the future of Europe. Delivered to the leaders of the then nine member states at the end of 1975, it was a succinct and ambitious blueprint for European integration, seeking the end of various national vetoes, common policies in defence and foreign policy issues, and stronger central institutions.

Tindemans outlined his task as a response to globalisation. “The construction of Europe is the only all-inclusive answer to this challenge; it derives spontaneously from the will of our peoples as embodied in the work of the Founding Fathers of Europe,” he wrote. “It is the only answer which seeks everywhere to regain some of the control and power which is slipping from us.” Yet whatever insight it might have had, the report was sidelined by other European leaders at the time.

His passion for Europe was also reflected in his co-founding in 1976 – and chairing until 1987 – of the first pan-European political group, the centre right Christian Democrat European People’s Party (EPP).

Tindemans’ legacy as Prime Minister was overshadowed by tensions between the Dutch and French-speaking communities. In 1977, he hammered out the Egmont pact, named after the Brussels palace where it was negotiated, which outlined a Belgian state reorganised on federal lines. Many see this as one of the great missed opportunities in Belgium’s bumpy history, as the proposals were derailed in the face of stiff Flemish resistance that included mass protests and triggered the creation of two far-right Flemish nationalist parties. His constitutional settlement would, however, eventually be adopted, giving Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels regional governments, and more governments to the three language groups – French, Dutch and German.

Although Tindemans had won a bigger share for his CVP in the 1977 elections – and led a more stable coalition with the Socialists – he abruptly resigned in October 1978 in the face of parliamentary pressure over his proposed economic austerity measures. But he remained popular across the country. Heading the CVP’s list for the 1979 European Parliament elections, Tindemans won 983,000 preference votes, still a record in Belgium, earning him the nicknames Mr Europe and the Million Vote Man.

Tindemans spent two years as an MEP, before returning to government as Foreign Minister under his former CVP protégé (and long-time rival) Wilfried Martens. Tindemans would spend eight years in that post, during a turbulent period marked by the Falklands war, the stand-off over Margaret Thatcher’s demands for a British rebate, the negotiations over the Single European Act, public opposition to US nuclear missiles on Belgian soil, and ongoing wrangles with former Belgian colony Zaire.

Re-elected to the European Parliament in 1989, Tindemans left frontline Belgian politics. He was elected leader of the EPP’s parliamentary group in 1992, but unseated two years later in a row over the membership of British Conservatives (David Cameron would eventually take them out of the EPP in 2009).

Tindemans remained an MEP and chaired the Tindemans Group in 1994-95, a broad gathering of politicians and officials from across Europe, which eventually called for a wider engagement with the public on the EU’s future. He retired from politics in 1999, saying he was “a politician from the 20th century, not the 21st.”

He married Rosa Naesens in 1960, had four children – Thomas, Pia, Nora and Bruno – and 12 grandchildren. They all survive him. 

Leo Tindemans, statesman: born Zwijndrecht, Belgium 16 April 1922; married 1960 Rosa Naesens (two sons, two daughters); died Edegem, Belgium 26 December 2014.