Two-term Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who led euro effort, dies at 73


Jean-Luc Dehaene helped draft the European Union constitution and served in the European Parliament. (Thierry Charlier/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
May 15

Jean-Luc Dehaene, a two-term Belgian prime minister who led his country into the euro common currency, died May 15 in France. He was 73.

Mr. Dehaene had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year but died following a fall while on vacation, media reports said.

Dubbed “the plumber” and “the minesweeper” for his coalition-building and arm-twisting skills, Mr. Dehaene bypassed Parliament and pushed through painful budget cuts to win Belgium a spot among the euro’s founding countries in 1999.

“I read everywhere that we need leaders with a vision, like in the old days,” Mr. Dehaene said in a 2010 interview with the Belgian newspaper De Tijd. “But how many get the chance to work up a vision, by definition a long-term project, let alone turn it into reality?”

A Christian Democrat from the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, the food- and soccer-mad Dehaene cultivated a man-of-the-people image to bridge the Dutch-French language divide in the country of 11 million. Speaking of soccer in a 2002 interview, Mr. Dehaene said that “together with the king, it’s one of the binding elements in Belgium.”

In retirement, Mr. Dehaene loomed increasingly as a relic from an earlier era of Belgian politics, when compromise between the Dutch and French regions was the norm. After disputed elections in 2007 and 2010, he was twice picked by the king as a mediator, and twice failed to nudge forward the government talks.

Jean-Luc Dehaene was born Aug. 7, 1940, in Montpellier, France, as his parents fled from the invading German army. He studied law and economics at universities in the Belgian cities of Namur and Leuven, heading the Flemish Catholic Boy Scouts before entering politics in 1967 with the Christian Democrats’ youth wing.

After he held a succession of ministry posts, Mr. Dehaene’s political moment came in 1992, when failed attempts by two rivals to form governments spawned doubts over Belgium’s viability as a federal state.

Mr. Dehaene put together a broad coalition of parties, devolving some powers to Belgium’s French- and Dutch-speaking regions while ramming through spending cuts to slash Belgium’s debt, then the highest in Europe.

Mr. Dehaene’s vision of an integrated Europe made him the top candidate to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission in 1994, only to be vetoed at the last minute by the anti-federalist U.K. prime minister, John Major.

The British veto “was truly the basis for my popularity in Belgium,” Mr. Dehaene recalled on his Web site.

Elected for a second term in 1995, Mr. Dehaene confronted a renewed loss of confidence in Belgium’s institutions when four girls were murdered by a convicted sex offender, Marc Dutroux. Amid allegations of official bungling, Mr. Dehaene unified Belgium’s disparate police forces.

Mr. Dehaene’s coalition appeared set for a third term in 1999 until a scandal over dioxin-tainted poultry, dubbed “chickengate” by the Belgian media, led to the sudden pre-election resignation of two ministers amid charges of a cover-up.

After leaving office, Mr. Dehaene enjoyed a political afterlife as a member of the European Parliament. He also was vice chairman of the committee that drafted the ill-fated European Union constitution in 2002 and 2003.

As the financial crisis hit in 2008, Mr. Dehaene was tapped to help rescue Dexia SA, a municipal lender saved from collapse by 6.4 billion euros ($8.8 billion) in Belgian and French government aid.

Dexia’s final stumble in 2011 led to a takeover of its Belgian unit by the Belgian government. Mr. Dehaene, saying he never asked for the job, surrendered his 2011 compensation.

Food and drink were never far from Mr. Dehaene’s mind. He and his American-born wife, the former Celie Verbeke, published “Cooking With Celie,” a book of favorite recipes, in 2005. His website featured a coq au vin recipe along with a photo of him, bare-chested, in a wine barrel.

“Mmmmmm, where’s my dinner?” Mr. Dehaene was overheard saying when an EU summit to introduce the euro ran several hours late in May 1998.

He and his wife had four children.

— Bloomberg News

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