School of Transnational Governance

Brexit, Migration and Finance: Former EU Council President Van Rompuy Reflects on the Challenges of Europe

President Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council from 2009 to 2014, visited the EUI on 10 December.

What are the challenges of working in a completely new institutional framework? Last week the EUI community had the chance to hear about the exceptional experience of President Herman Van Rompuy, the first elected President of the European Council, established by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

President Van Rompuy was invited for the last instalment of the year of the ‘Leaders Beyond the State’ series, in which former presidents of the European institutions are invited to the EUI to record their experiences as leaders in transnational governance. During the event, he took part in a lively debate with EUI researchers Sophia Hunger (SPS), Elsa Clara Massoc (SPS), Christy Ann Petit (LAW), and Jan Karol Teresinski (ECO). Professor Miguel Poiares Maduro, Director of the STG, moderated the discussion. The whole event was live-streamed.

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President Van Rompuy with EUI researchers, Professor Maduro and EUI President Renaud Dehousse

As first-elected President of the European Council, Van Rompuy had to rely on his fine mediating skills to define the modalities of interaction with the European Commission and the European Parliament, and to build bonds of trust with the governments of the 28 Member States. In the words of Professor Maduro, he was a ‘master in the art of mediation and compromise’. Indeed, President Van Rompuy admitted that he sometimes feels like ‘a politician that truly belongs to the past century’.

During his two mandates at the helm of the European Council, President Van Rompuy found himself managing crucial issues such as the economic and financial crisis, to the solution of which he contributed as President of the Task Force on EU Economic Governance, as well as by heading the working group that led to the creation of the European Stability Mechanism. ‘It took us two years to convince some Member States that what we experienced was a systemic crisis,’ he recalled during the discussion with the researchers.

We have to restore a balance between the openness of our society and the protection of our citizens

Reflecting on the aftermath of the crisis and on the many challenges ahead for Europe, he said that ‘there is the need for an EU that protects. Insecure jobs, rising inequality, climate change - on many of these issues the EU has already delivered results’, reminding the audience that ‘from an historical point of view, only the result counts. We overcame the crisis; we saved the Euro - and thus the EU - against all odds’.
Despite these results, ‘bringing trust in the Union back among its citizens will take time’, he admitted. ‘We have to restore a balance between the openness of our society, and the protection of our citizens. Many of them feel that they are not protected anymore”, he said.

Brexit? I cannot imagine any leader taking responsibility for the catastrophe that would be crashing out of the EU without a deal 

Tackling on the current issues, he acknowledged that ‘we did not do enough for the refugee crisis: we just assumed that solidarity meant putting a halt to migration’. On Brexit, which he defined as a ‘political amputation’ and ‘the biggest setback ever for the Union’, he considered that a second referendum, ‘inconceivable’ only a few months ago, is now within realm of possibility: ‘I cannot imagine any leader taking responsibility for the catastrophe that would be crashing out of the EU without a deal’, he declared. Quoting Winston Churchill, he concluded his reflections with a warning to the EU: ‘we must not waste these good crises', he said, calling for institutional change in the Union.