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Herman van Rompuy: inspired by the spirit of compromise

The European Union can only remain in existence if all Member States continue to be inspired by the spirit of compromise. Those words comprised the core message of Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council, who delivered the third Europa Lecture on 10 October at Leiden University.

Video of the lecture

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An indispensable companion to compromise is trust, according to Van Rompuy, who on 1 December will make way for the current Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk. The President is in regular contact with other presidents: The President of the Eurogroup, the Central European Bank, the European Commission and the Managing Director of the IMF. ‘But trust needs to be present at all levels,’ he continued, ‘also within and between the Member States and in the Council.’ He illustrated how difficult this is by stating that of all 28 Member States, only eight had the same head of government in the Council continuously throughout his five-year term. Apart from this, it was a constant ‘coming and going’ of people; and every time their trust had to be gained.

First permanent President

The European Council, in which the heads of state and government of the Member States meet with each other, has been in existence for just four decades. But the Council only became an official EU Institution in 2009 when the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force. At the same time, it was decided that the Council should have a permanent President and not, as before, a rotating Presidency. The President has  few legal powers according to Van Rompuy. No budgetary power (in the hands of the Council and the European Parliament), no power to appoint or release people, and only a limited staff. And this is exactly why it is necessary to pursue unanimity, compromise.

Van Rompuy receives Willem van Oranje Medal
Herman van Rompuy receives the Willem van Oranje Medal on the occasion of the Europa Lecture. This is the highest honour awarded by Leiden University. Van Rompuy received the Medal from Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker, in recognition of his major contribution to the European project and in admiration of the exemplary and inspiring resolve with which he steered the European Union through successive storms.

Van Rompuy receives Willem van Oranje medal

The euro crisis

Van Rompuy took up his position when the crisis had just erupted. 'When I began, Angela Merkel asked me what I would be doing in between meetings, because the Council only met four times a year.’ It turned out to be years of hard graft at a time when the euro became caught up in an existential crisis as a result of the problems in Greece.  'An important Chinese official voiced his concerns as to the outcome. China felt dependent on what was happening in a small country in the Mediterranean.' It all ended well to the extent that the eurocrisis could be defused. Van Rompuy emphasises that the euro is an absolute prerequisite for the EU; without the euro, it’s finished. 'We need more euro, not less.' He has faith in the outcome. 'If this had not been the express will of the Member States, the crisis would have ended differently.'

Place and Space

More than once, Van Rompuy emphasised that the people of the Member States will be of overriding importance for the EU. But it is the people who seem to have lost faith.  'We need to return to where it all started: the EU is a peace project', he said. 'The EU is too little place and too much space. Europe must be a safe haven, a place where people come home and feel at ease. Now it is too much a space, a structure of laws and rules.' Winning back the trust of the European people appears to Van Rompuy to be the first and most important task for his successor.

Initiative of the Europa Instituut

The Europa Lezing is an annual event organised by the Europa Instituut at Leiden Law School. The two previous lectures were given by the then Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski, and Director General for Competition at the European Commission Alexander Italianer.
The third lecture was part of the activities of the European Research Centre for Economic and Financial Governance (EURO-CEFG), a joint initiative between the universities Leiden, Delft and Erasmus Rotterdam in which researchers at these universities work together to investigate the causes and solutions of the economic and monetary crisis in Europe.

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