Last Friday, Herman Van Rompuy faced one of his toughest days since he became president of the European Council. His role in this new job is to find common ground among the EU’s 27 national leaders so that all members move forward together with common objectives. At the same time, realpolitik dictates that he should take account of the views of the EU’s biggest member states.
The events of the past year have revealed the economic price of disunity. Financial markets will punish the weaker members of the eurozone if they suspect that the political will to support them is lacking. Van Rompuy’s first year in office has been about co-ordinating the response to the sovereign-debt crisis. That work is not over yet.
On Friday, he was confronted with what some diplomats have described as the worst atmosphere at an EU summit in years. The ideas that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy presented for a competitiveness pact to boost the credibility of the euro met strong opposition from most other EU leaders.
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Unsurprisingly, Van Rompuy’s post-summit press conference touched only lightly on this. Instead he stressed how much leaders had been in agreement about the future of EU energy policy and the need to boost innovation. Even Van Rompuy’s legendary skills for finding agreement in the face of implacable discord – he was prime minister of Belgium – were tested as he sought to put the lack of agreement on the pact in context. EU governments had already agreed to what he called a “revolution” in economic governance last October, when they agreed to strengthen the stability and growth pact, he pointed out. What Merkel and Sarkozy were proposing was “to go further” and seek greater co-ordination in economic policy areas that were decided by national governments, he said.
Van Rompuy’s acquaintance with the views of smaller countries makes him highly attuned to the political sensitivities that Merkel and Sarkozy’s demands affronted, as well as to the resentment at the way they were presented. At the same time, he knows that stricter economic discipline in the eurozone is Germany’s condition for agreeing to other decisions considered essential to support the euro. These include making changes to the European Financial Stability Facility.
This leaves him seeking a middle ground between the demands of Berlin and Paris, on the one hand, and, on the other, the feelings of the other 25 leaders. His consultations on the pact with eurozone leaders will examine mechanisms that can be created within the existing EU treaties, and that avoid creating any rival structures. He has pointed out that special procedures for the eurozone already exist, in the form of the Eurogroup meeting of finance ministers. Special arrangements are normal for countries sharing a single currency, he said after the summit. While the euro was strong, its only weak point was that there was too much divergence in competitiveness. “To reduce that divergence we have to co-ordinate more,” he said.
Van Rompuy’s carefully chosen words, and the positive gloss he put on what was an ill-tempered meeting, highlight the difficult balancing act he has to perform between now and the summit on 24-25 March. If he is seen as doing the bidding of the Franco-German alliance, he will lose the support of other leaders, especially those from smaller member states. But Merkel, as leader of the most powerful member of the eurozone, must also get something in return for helping its weaker members. His task is to convince all around the summit table that they are working for common interests. Friday’s meeting showed that task is not an easy one.