Born in 1940 in Montpellier, France, he has all the skills of compromise which are required of a successful Belgian leader. He has been Prime Minister since March 1992 and has shown great skill in keeping the coalition government of Socialists and Christian Democrats (drawn from both sides of Belgium's linguistic divide) together in relative harmony.
His talent for keeping things together is presumably what persuaded Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and President Francois Mitterrand of France to put him forward as President of the European Commission.
Unlike mainstream Christian Democrats, Mr Dehaene comes from a party with deep roots in the trade union movement and his politics have more in common with Jacques Delors, the outgoing head of the European Commission, and a Socialist, than first meets the eye. Both identify with a similar brand of heavily Catholic-influenced politics. Both are true believers in what federalists call the 'construction of Europe'.
But where Mr Delors is cerebral and suave, Mr Dehaene is a rough and ready politician with the common touch. He can be brutal, even boorish in negotiations. His nickname in Belgium is 'The Bulldozer'.
Eschewing the slick double-breasted look of some European leaders, he buys his suits off-the-peg. He lives modestly in one of the uglier Brussels suburbs. The political mould he has emerged from is one of deal-making and opaque compromise, essential for a country whose two main linguistic communities do not get along and would happily live separately.
Educated first in French at the University of Namur, then in Dutch at Leuven University, Mr Dehaene straddles both cultures. He is also a devout Catholic, important in a country which has religious-based organisations for virtually every activity (including the Roman Catholic goat-breeders' association).
It is Mr Dehaene's federalist credentials which have drawn most criticism from the Europhobe right in Britain, but in practice he is a pragmatist on this as on many other issues. In Belgian eyes, one of the main advantages of a having a strong EU is that it keeps the Germans and French from pushing smaller countries around.