You may be forgiven for all the misconceptions you probably have about Herman Van Rompuy, the newish President of the European Council. He didn’t get much coverage in the UK when he was Prime Minister of Belgium, and most of that written and said about him since becoming President has been negative, sometimes even insulting.
President Van Rompuy spoke to the Socialist and Democrat Group this morning, and believe me he is far from lightweight. His knowledge of economics is outstanding. What is more, he is capable of strategic thinking and has a genuine vision for Europe, a vision much more in line with British views than you may expect. President Van Rompuy sees the EU as a grouping of sovereign states with certain common objectives. I’d certainly buy into that, as I’m sure would the vast majority of people in the UK, except perhaps those on the extreme margins of politics.
The President showed a rare degree of radicalism this morning, all the more surprising as he is from the centre-right EPP family. It was his support for the tax on financial transactions which finally convinced me that he is a man we could do business with. When answering a question from fellow Belgian, Marc Tarabella, it became clear that President Van Rompuy not only supports the “Tobin” tax in principle, but as Belgian Prime Minister he implemented it on a national basis. You may also be interested to know that the G20 is looking at such a tax and the IMF is preparing a report.
The economic issues obviouly revolved around the current downturn. The President was unrepentant about the EU’s policy of protecting the internal market and the euro and the pursuit of inflationary measures. He was, on the other hand, clear that we all need to return to balanced budgets in order to pursue social goals such as sustainable pensions and improved health care. While I would not necessarily support his contention that we need balanced budgets to carry out a social programme, the President does, at least, believe in the social dimension of Europe. He was also clear that the EU needs to ensure that the new EU 20:20 strategy is successful, unlike the previous Lisbon Strategy which did not achieve anything very much.
Climate change was the other big topic. Since Copenhagen has not moved anything forward, Europe needs to keep on working at this agenda. There were several calls, including one from EPLP Leader Glenis Willmott, for green, sustainable jobs which President Van Rompuy supported wholeheartedly.
Herman Van Rompuy is an engaging speaker, though like many Europeans he lacks some of the rhetorical flourish so beloved by the British. He gave his presentation in English, he then answered questions in French and understood German as well as his native Dutch. I wonder how many of us are fluent in at least four languages. He also listens and made a promise that he would take seriously all the points raised at the Group meeting.
It’s a real tragedy for us that both President Van Rompuy and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, our own Baroness Ashton, get such a bad press in Britain. They are both excellent at their jobs. One socialist MEP said today that Herman Van Rompuy is the right person in the right place. The same is true of Cathy Ashton, and we would do well to take a leaf out of the books of many other countries in the European Union and support our national appointees.
And finally… it was good to see former Labour MEP Richard Corbett sitting at the top table with President Van Rompuy. Richard is now head of the President’s Cabinet. Congratulatons Richard. You deserve your success and we all know you will do exceptional work for Herman Van Rompuy and, by extension, for all of us involved in the EU.