Belgian parliamentarians cheered and applauded their departing Prime Minister as he headed off to be anointed in his new role. Wearing a loose-fitting suit and a look of surprise tinged with |amusement, Herman van Rompuy cut a diminutive figure among his boisterous colleagues.
Unusually in this divided country, Flemish nationalists teamed up with Walloon socialists to salute their unlikely national hero. In a nod to his premier's famous love of verse, one MP recited the opening stanza of a Flemish poem as a tribute, which Mr Van Rompuy then spontaneously completed.
Despite stints as budget minister and deputy prime minister, he has chosen to spend much of his long political career well away from the limelight, beavering away behind the scenes to cut deals between his country's bickering French-speaking and Flemish communities.
It was this skill of quietly brokering compromises that prompted King Albert II to summon the Christian Democrat on a cold December day at the end of 2007, when the country was gripped by political tensions so great there were fears that Belgium would split in two.
Almost immediately and imperceptibly, Mr Van Rompuy brought calm to the troubled waters. This despite his initial reluctance to accept the job in which three others had failed that same year, and just at a time when he was looking forward to his retirement, indulging his love of reading and caravanning.
That retirement has now been postponed once again. "I undergo all of this with mixed feelings," the 62-year-old told reporters ahead of the dinner summit where he was crowned "Mr Europe".
"He... operates in the shadows. But just because he prefers to stay away from the public glare doesn’t mean he’ll be altogether invisible," said a former ministerial colleague, Johan Vande Lanotte. "But he might find |it hard to adjust to the faster pace |of the EU."
Other colleagues praise Mr Van Rompuy's wry sense of humour and cynical take on the daily political goings-on, when he often throws in |a tongue-in-cheek aside. But his unique trademark is his passion for composing haikus, a form of Japanese poetry, which he publishes in a leading Flemish daily.
"Hair blows in the wind/after years there is still wind/sadly no more hair," has become his most famous composition, but the bulk of the haikus are miniature odes to nature and the outdoors, a setting in which he seems most at home.
"He seems like the least obvious choice but he’ll be full of surprises. He's furiously intelligent and he'll take a stand when needed," said one diplomat. "Europe just needs to get to know him."Reuse content