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EU leaders hand Van Rompuy 2nd term as president

EU leaders hand Van Rompuy 2nd term as president

Two and a half years ago, when European Union leaders were choosing the first president of the European Council, they faced a choice: Would they choose their leader or their clerk?

Would the post be filled by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a charismatic leader already welcome in the highest councils of government around the world? Or someone else?

In the end, the national leaders — unwilling, many analysts said, to be overshadowed — chose someone else: Herman Van Rompuy, who had served 11 months as prime minister of Belgium and was virtually unheard of outside the country.

On Thursday, at a summit meeting in Brussels, EU leaders appointed Van Rompuy to a second (and legally final) 2 ½-year term as president of the European Council — their gathering of the 27 EU heads of government. If they chose a clerk, many EU-watchers say, they chose a good one — a skillful administrator willing to sublimate his own ego in favor of the greater good, a man with the intellectual and emotional intelligence needed to forge agreements in an institution where major decisions require unanimity.

And a man whose mild manner and mousy appearance meant he overshadowed no one. The appointment itself had to be unanimous.

“It’s with pleasure that I accept a 2nd mandate,’’ Van Rompuy tweeted Thursday, after his reappointment. “A privilege to serve Europe in such decisive times; also a big responsibility.’’

He was also appointed Thursday as the first chairman of the euro summits, a new position meant to reinforce economic convergence among eurozone countries.

Van Rompuy’s appearance the night his initial appointment was announced, and his anonymity, may have led many people to underestimate him. His fringe of gray hair was mussed and he looked like someone emerging blinking into sunlight, unsure exactly how he got there.

Early in 2010, Nigel Farage, a member of Britain anti-EU UKIP party, thundered at Van Rompuy in disdain.

“We were told that when we had a president, we’d see a giant global political figure, a man who would be the political leader for 500 million people, the man that would represent all of us on the world stage, the man whose job was so important that of course you’re paid more than President Obama.

“Well, I’m afraid what we got was you. … I don’t want to be rude but, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.’’

But analysts say that, given the constraints in which he found himself — with national interests remaining strong, and national treasuries in some instances contributing significantly to financial bailouts — he has proved himself a canny negotiator and a man of steely intelligence. And that has happened even though Germany and France mostly insist on running the EU show.

“I think he’s been as effective as he could have been, given the political constraints,’’ said Simon Tilford, chief economist at London’s Centre for European Reform. “He’s managed to broker some compromises.’’

Van Rompuy’s low-key manner has helped him, said Richard Whitman, of Chatham House, a British think tank.

“It’s not a job that’s one for grandstanding,’’ Whitman said. Instead, Van Rompuy has had to act as part marriage counselor, part conductor in an effort to get everybody pointed in the same direction, Whitman said.

And his steadiness has been an asset as the EU struggled to emerge from its financial crisis.

“The markets tend not to do funny things after he says things,’’ Whitman said.

Still, a marriage counselor is not what had been envisaged when the new job was written into the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in December 2007.

“The position is far away from what was imagined when it was created,’’ said Paul De Grauwe, an economist and EU specialist at the London School of Economics. The job was created as part of the Treaty of Lisbon, which was signed in December 2007. Van Rompuy took office a year after that.

But many observers say that’s due not to Van Rompuy, but the situation, and there was no way EU leaders were going to throw him overboard. In fact, they never considered it.

“The ‘gray mouse’ has become an indispensable force,’’ the Belgian newspaper De Volkskrant wrote Thursday.

One of Van Rompuy’s colleagues, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, put it slightly differently.

“Herman, you’re a modest man,’’ she tweeted shortly after he was reappointed. “But what is not modest is your enormous work for Europe.’’

Robert Wielaard contributed to this report.

Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don—Melvin

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