Meet Haiku Herman, Will Europe make him, A very famous Belgian?

The demise of Tony Blair's bid to become the EU's first president has opened the way for a politician with more interest in Japanese poetry than publicity

Vanessa Mock
Saturday 14 November 2009 01:00 GMT
Wrangling over planned hikes in the EU budget will loom large today when European Council president Herman van Rompuy (pictured) meets David Cameron for talks in Downing Street
Wrangling over planned hikes in the EU budget will loom large today when European Council president Herman van Rompuy (pictured) meets David Cameron for talks in Downing Street (reuters)

One is a young, dynamic reporter with a blond quiff who roams the world in search of adventure. The other is a greying, diminutive politician with glasses, a penchant for poetry and a love of country life. On the face of it, Belgium's national hero, Tintin, could not be more different from the man who is tipped to be chosen as the European Union's first president next week.

Unlike Hergé's boy reporter, Herman Van Rompuy was virtually unknown outside of Belgium until a few weeks ago when his name began to do the rounds in Brussels as a possible candidate for the newly created post of President of the European Council. Yet the Belgian Prime Minister is seen by many of his own countrymen as an unsung national hero who has quietly pulled Belgium back from the brink of collapse thanks to his adroit political manoeuvrings, the twinkle in his eye and a generous dose of wry humour.

Short in stature and slight of build, the 62-year-old is a master of understatement who would be the first to admit he stumbled into high office by accident and says he prizes intelligence over hard work. Mr Van Rompuy was drifting towards retirement when he was plucked from his MP's office at the end of 2008, amid a spiralling crisis that threatened to split the country's Flemish and French-speaking communities and made Prime Minister at the behest of King Albert II.

He made no secret of his reluctance to take on the near-impossible job of keeping Belgium's brawling politicians from one another's throats over issues ranging from the national budget to immigration. Three prime ministers had come and gone in one year, yet within just a few months, Mr Van Rompuy worked his discreet magic to quell the political flames, switching effortlessly from his Flemish mother-tongue to French to heal the rift between the two language groups.

"He's no big hitter, but don't underestimate Herman Van Rompuy," says Liesbeth Van Impe from Belgium's daily newspaper, Het Nieuwsblad. "This country was in a terrible state and he's managed to bring peace and stability. Today, there are no more newspaper headlines predicting the collapse of our country. But now, everyone is worrying about what will happen when he's gone."

Belgium's media pour accolades on their saviour, hailing him as a "miracle worker" and "minimalist sage", but he remains a remarkably discreet and private figure. Married with three children, the economist graduated from the venerable University of Leuven. He cut his teeth at the Belgian central bank before embarking on a long parliamentary career that has seen him preside over the Flemish-branch of the Christian Democrats as well as becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Speaker of parliament.

Yet many Belgians like him best for his quirky passion for haiku, a 17-syllable form of Japanese poetry, which he composes in Flemish. Despite many painstaking efforts by the media to extrapolate political messages from them, Mr Van Rompuy's three-lined compositions are most often mini-odes to nature. His words paint pictures of birds flitting across open skies and the setting of the sun on the Belgian countryside or the coastline as a metaphor for inner serenity. "I breathe easy," was a recent last line.

Tellingly, his homepage is mostly devoted to quotes and poems from his favourite writers rather than to politics. Nor does it contain many references to Europe. Although he has not dipped his toes in European or foreign affairs, opting instead for a national focus, Mr Van Rompuy says his Jesuit upbringing imbued him with a strong European identity. "When I was a student, the memory of the war was still fresh in everyone's minds. So our teachers organised exchanges with students from other European Jesuit colleges in Europe. That left a deep impression on me because I realised that we were all deep down so very similar," he told Le Vif magazine last year.

Political colleagues also point to his avid interest in the drafting of the European Constitution, which has now been replaced by the Lisbon Treaty. "He saw it as the great adventure of the 20th century," says one. "He wants to see Europe grow and expand beyond its borders."

Belgium's politician-poet has kept characteristically quiet on the question of whether he would like to have the continent's top job, knowing full well that a noisy candidacy would most likely spoil his chances. "The most important thing now is not to say the wrong thing," he told Belgian reporters at a recent EU summit. One political colleague commented: "He knows what he's doing. That's why he's been opening his mouth only to breathe!"

Despite being the current front-runner, Mr Van Rompuy is probably well-prepared for disappointment if European leaders decide to pluck another name out of the hat at their summit on Thursday. He might seek consolation in one of his favourite quotes by the German pianist Alfred Brendel: "I am always pessimistic, in the hope of being surprised."

Poetic licence: The EU in verse

Independent staff were challenged to write a Brussels-themed haiku. This is what they came up with. Think you can do better? Email us at:

Yellow stars lost in the blue;

Now they can orbit

Mr President.

Vote Haiku Herman.

Within Brussels has sprouted

Bitter taste for Blair.

He writes poems!

That should cheer dull hours

Of talks on iron ore tariffs.

Europe unites

And cheers the President,

Or is that Presidio?

Vintage wine at lunch:

Expensed. At least it's

not American, you claim.

Europe pluribus unum,

But don't tell Ukip:

They just want unum.

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