Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Belgian Haiku Master

Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images - Belgian Prime Minsiter Herman Van Rompuy.

BRUSSELS -- When it chooses its first permanent president this week, the European Union is expected to pass over former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other heavy hitters in favor of a balding, bespectacled Belgian named Herman Van Rompuy.

The charismatic Mr. Blair walked the international stage long enough to wear grooves in it. Mr. Van Rompuy, Belgium's prime minister for the past 11 months, is a modest functionary known inside his country for writing haikus in his native Flemish. His lack of ostentation is reflected in his poem "Hair":

“Hair blows in the wind
After years there is still wind
Sadly no more hair.”

I know whereof he speaks.

Mr. Van Rompuy is the clear favorite of oddsmakers like Ladbrokes to be chosen president by the leaders of the EU's 27 member nations Thursday. Though the vote could still hold surprises, Mr. Van Rompuy's likely ascendance speaks to the baroque nature of EU politics -- where permanent presidents need not be permanent or presidential, and where the race tends to go not to the strong, but to the Belgians, Danes and Luxembourgers.

From left, Luxemburg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga[mdash ]hopefuls for the coming job of EU President.

Mr. Van Rompuy is known as a master of procedural minutiae who can run committee meetings in several languages. But as Belgium's budget director in the 1990s, he also helped the massively indebted country meet the criteria for joining the euro.

After becoming Belgium's prime minister in December, Mr. Van Rompuy has repaired fissures with the country's French-speaking minority and managed a bureaucracy of six parliaments and more than 50 cabinet-level ministers. "If you know how to run Belgium, you can deal with the EU," says Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an analyst with the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies.

Mr. Van Rompuy's particular knack was evident in the haiku he read at a recent news conference with the prime ministers of Spain and Hungary:

“Three waves together,
Rolling into the harbor --
The trio is here.”

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