Saturday, November 21, 2009

Meet President van Rompuy!

This week Herman van Rompuy became the first president of the European Union, capping a nearly decade-long battle by European bureaucrats to reform the political structure of the EU.

If you're reaction to the headline was "who?", the BBC was kind enough to publish this profile on President van Rompuy. His selection as EU president has already brought out the critics, some of whom say that van Rompuy was the only man bland enough for all 27 EU members to agree upon. Former British PM Tony Blair lobbied hard for the job, but ultimately failed to gain enough support, especially from EU powers like Germany - Blair's support for the Iraq War and George Bush weighed against him. Others though are asking what exactly the EU president will do, his/her duties under the Treaty of Lisbon are pretty vague, and President van Rompuy himself has defined his role more as a manager than as a strong leader.

But two countries could be impacted by the selection of van Rompuy as EU president. One is his native Belgium, where van Rompuy will have to give up his job as prime minister, a move that could launch the nation into a political crisis. Following national elections in June 2007, Belgium was effectively without a government for almost a year as the country's two main ethnic groups - the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons - failed to agree on a prime minister. After an interim government fell apart, Belgium's King Albert II stepped in and asked van Rompuy - a political moderate respected by both sides - to take the job, finally ending the crisis. The question now is if there's another van Rompuy waiting in the wings, or if the Flemish and Walloons will restart their battle over which side should lead the country.

Meanwhile Turkey likely won't be happy over van Rompuy's new role. For a decade now, Turkey has been trying to join the EU club, only to have negotiations over their membership drag on and on. While in the Belgian parliament five years ago van Rompuy spoke out forcefully against Turkish membership in the EU. "Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe," he said, adding "the universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."

Whether President van Rompuy moderates that position remains to be seen, but another high-profile European leader, France's Nikolas Sarkozy, is also against Turkey's membership in the EU, so I wouldn't expect a lot of progress in membership talks anytime soon. How Turkey reacts to that will be interesting to see.
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