The diplomatic powerhouse behind Van Rompuy [article]

At the start of Herman Van Rompuy’s second term, I published a profile piece of his right hand and head of cabinet Frans van Daele in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen. Van Daele is the man behind the scenes, directing Van Rompuy’s politics. The two Belgian prominents have known each other since their twenties.

I’ve pasted a selection of the material together to give the English reader a chance to take a peek behind the scenes of Van Rompuy’s cabinet.

For the Dutch reader, you can find the article as published in De Morgen by clicking on the image below!

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The diplomatic powerhouse behind Van Rompuy


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As Herman Van Rompuy starts his second term, his head of cabinet Frans van Daele directs the show. Van Daele is the president’s right hand and Brussels’ éminence grise

By Laurens Cerulus

At the centre of the quartier européen in Brussels, the banners of the Danish EU presidency hang proudly off the facade of the Justus Lipsius building, home of the EU Council.

But since December 2009, it is not the rotating presidency but the permanent president of the European Council that drafts the plans for the union.

Herman Van Rompuy starts his second term on Friday 1 June. In the European lobbies, eurocrats and diplomats credit not only Van Rompuy for his achievements in the first term. The president is flanked by a real powerhouse of European diplomacy: the Belgian baron Frans van Daele.

Van Daele is the man behind the scenes. He earned his stripes throughout 41 years of EU involvement, negotiating the Treaty of Nice and co-authoring the Laeken Declaration, both in 2001. In 2002, he was knighted by the Belgian king for his services at EU level.

When Van Rompuy took office in 2009, his cabinet had to fight its way into the EU’s institutional system. Frans van Daele set the bar telling colleagues the cabinet was “a nuclear power plant, not plugged into the system yet.”

Though, Van Rompuy’s style didn’t quite help at first. The Belgian ‘grey mouse’ didn’t come across all too presidential, member states judged. Questions rose on how he could balance the power of the decades-old Franco-German axis.

“There were some fears that this new role would benefit the large member states”, an EU ambassador explains. “But van Daele has been focused on keeping the smaller states in as well.”

“We know the back of everyone’s cards,” van Daele says. “It is all about building a consensus, and giving everyone the feeling that they have won something. Everybody is got to go home with a win,” the baron explains his approach.

Cut for Europe

The head of cabinet had an extensive reputation to hold up. Van Daele made it as a household name in Brussels’ corridors. “Everybody knew him before he started the job”, says top staff member of the cabinet Sarah Nelen, who assists the head of cabinet in many of his meetings.

Van Daele holds the ability of charming and disarming the negotiators at the table, his peers say. A senior EU diplomat describes him as “a high-ranking, well esteemed and effective diplomat. He sees the solution, and formulates it in the right language. He is very good at that.”

Van Daele plays by the European rules. The limelight is generally preserved for the presiding member state, if not reclaimed by the ‘true’ leaders of Europe: Germany and France.

“Both Frans and Herman don’t have too much amour propre,” says Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD and former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme. “They trust on the course of history to give them the recognition they deserve.”

Side by side

Frans van Daele and Herman Van Rompuy have known each other for ages. Both studied at the same university in Louvain, Belgium. They met at the youth division of the Flemish Christian-democrat party CD&V – then CVP.

Van Daele built up an international curriculum while Van Rompuy worked his way up in national politics, and all the way to the European top.

“Frans and Herman understand each other blindly”, Yves Leterme says. “They’ve known each other for ages, coming from the same generation of the Flemish Christian-democrat party.”

Van Daele acknowledges: “We hardly ever differ in analysis. We’re friends, but we also believe in the same things. I presume we instinctively think alike on many issues.”

“A head of cabinet of his allure has a heavy influence on the president’s politics, obviously,” says Leterme, for whom van Daele briefly lead the cabinet of Foreign Affairs in 2009. “Frans is a diplomat who is mostly used for negotiating the top dossiers. He reaches a solution in delicate situations”, Leterme says.

Overcoming the eurostorm

Van Rompuy and van Daele coped with the most challenging constellation in the history of the EU. When EU member states searched their way out of the financial storm, Van Rompuy judged in March that the eurozone was heading for “calmer waters”. The recent developments on Greece have proved him wrong.

Van Daele sticks to his guns: “We’ve passed the eye of the hurricane”. Now, growth has become the buzzword within the EU. “We are concentrating on maximising the potential of the Union. We are aiming for a European patent system, new trade agreements and other measures.”

How the first president of the European Council is remembered, will be judged on 30 November 2014 – the last day of Van Rompuy’s second term. The Belgian baron better braces himself until that day comes.

The European dream

“It’s quite clear,” van Daele says when asked on his vision for Europe, “I am a European federalist. But I am also a diplomatic realist.”
“I’ve always focused on Europe. I gave my first presentation on the EU in the fifth grade of high school”, he laughs.

“Then, I went to study philology, which I thought was necessary for building the Europe Union. Later on, my entire career as a diplomat has been focused on the Belgian European policy.”

Between 2002 and 2006, van Daele spent four years across the Atlantic as the Belgian ambassador to the United States. He went there to study the American federal system, he says.

“As Mark Twain points out: ‘history never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes’. There’s plenty of similarities with the EU to be found in American integration.”

“I know: comparaison n’est pas raison”, he says. “But still… I’m deeply convinced that the European integration process is the only way of keeping up our level of political and economical civilisation.”

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Thanks for reading! Laurens.


About laurenscerulus

AKA reporter for Deutsche Welle, The Independent, Monocle24... AKA editor @ FKA trainee journalist @ BBC World Service, Monocle, De Morgen, MO* FKA foreign editor @ Veto student newspaper, Belgium. FKA student of modern history @ KULeuven | international relations @ UCLouvain.

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