Vanessa Mock: A reputation forged by putting off difficult decisions

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The Independent Online

He is known for being a poet and a skilled political operator, but despite having just clinched the prized post of becoming the EU's first President, Herman van Rompuy has remained silent on his ambitions for Europe.

Having devoted his entire political career to tackling domestic wrangles, Belgium's Prime Minister is an almost blank canvas when it comes to the wider continent. And sadly, during his acceptance speech on Thursday night, he all but blew his first big chance to set out a vision for his two-and-a-half year term at the helm. Or perhaps, as several Belgian observers noted wryly, it is simply the case that he does not have a vision.

Hundreds of journalists had squeezed into the packed-out pressroom at the European Council, eager for their first glimpse of this hitherto-unknown statesman and ready to have their ears bent with plans and policies. But one could almost hear the air being let out of the balloon as Van Rompuy spoke. He painted broad brushstrokes about the need to improve Europe's economic strength, trade relations and to maintain its core of social and democratic values, but his words were devoid of detail.

The Belgian has been torn to shreds by Britain's eurosceptic press after he floated the idea of an EU-wide tax during a closed-door gathering of top movers and shakers last week. Thursday was his moment to silence these critics and make clear what his colleagues know to be true, namely that he does not have the ideological drive to push for an ever-closer union between the EU's 27 members. And yet he kept silent.

His views on Turkish membership are also unclear. Ankara is panicking after picking up on foreign headlines citing his opposition to Turkey, all based on a single speech he made five years ago. In 2004, Van Rompuy reportedly said that the "universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will loose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey." He has not addressed the Turkish question since, and one ally says that Van Rompuy believes "Europe should grow beyond its borders. He would not oppose Turkey's membership because he sees it as the bridge linking the West to the Islamic world." So why has he not taken the trouble to set this out himself?

The 62-year old has been praised at home for "being the glue that keeps the country together". Although he has calmed relations between Belgium's Flemish- and French-speaking citizens, he has done so largely by putting to one side those issues at the heart of their disputes. Belgians are nervous about a return to instability but they expect their hero to do them proud now that he has stepped on to the European stage. What a pity that the new Mr Europe does not yet have his script to hand.

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