BRUSSELS — Facing a debt crisis, Europe’s sniping leaders are jockeying for the limelight, eager to push solutions that suit their national needs. But the man billed as the new “president of Europe” has remained largely behind the scenes.
A Belgian politician-cum-poet, Herman Van Rompuy ascended to the new post with much fanfare in late 2009 but quickly faded into the background even as the region erupted in its worst turmoil since the advent of the euro. That is just as Van Rompuy — and Europe’s leaders — appear to prefer it: No one person, they argue, should overshadow the chancellors, prime ministers and presidents of the 17 nations that share the euro.
But Van Rompuy’s self-described “quiet diplomacy” illustrates what critics say is a fundamental problem dogging the Europeans: How can you manage a crisis when no one is really in charge?
The euro, unlike any other major currency, is rooted in an arcane set of treaties and a spirit of European unity rather than a formal central leadership vested with the authority to manage. Europe’s failed attempts to resolve a debt crisis that is threatening the global economy, observers say, are exposing the pitfalls of that governance system, with competing national interests and highly diffused leadership making it nearly impossible for the region to take bold, fast and successful action.
To a great extent, the leaders of Germany and France — the two largest nations that use the euro — have sought to fill the void, becoming the chief architects last week of yet another new plan to save near-bankrupt Greece and expand the firepower of a rescue fund aimed at propping up the larger troubled economies of Italy and Spain.
But their presumption to make decisions for the region is increasingly frustrating smaller euro-zone nations, such as the Netherlands and Finland. Worse, their authority is being severely undermined by the Greeks, who shocked Berlin and Paris on Monday by calling a surprise national referendum on the terms of the hard-won deal struck last week. In one blunt stroke by Athens, Europe’s entire rescue plan could fall apart.
Those tensions reflect the bigger quandary facing the Europeans as they seek an endorsement of their latest rescue plan from heads of state, including President Obama, at an economic summit in Cannes, France, this week. A longer-term solution may require European leaders to do something they are largely reluctant to do: give up more power.
With a storied constellation of cultures eager to retain their identities, Europe is unlikely to ever resemble a true United States of Europe with a single central government. But effectively acknowledging flaws in their system, European leaders agreed last week to take fresh steps to strengthen central governance, with the first draft of a plan due next month.
Any further surrender of national sovereignty will be hard-fought. And few examples underscore the reluctance of European leaders to cede power to a central authority more than the position now occupied by Van Rompuy.
A published poet who delights in writing haiku, Van Rompuy, 64, had held what is arguably the toughest job in Europe, as prime minister of Belgium, a bitterly divided country that has at times veered toward splitting in two.
In late 2009, those credentials helped Van Rompuy beat out former British prime minister Tony Blair in the race to fill the newly created post as Europe’s “president of presidents.”
The position — officially the leader of the European Council, a body made up of the European Union’s elected heads of state — was billed at the time as a unifying force that could propel Europe’s image forward on the world stage.
Yet critics say the job was largely designed for another purpose entirely. Europe’s leaders were concerned that the European Commission — the bureaucratic and executive branch of the European Union charged with enforcing the region’s treaties — was growing too powerful. A new council president selected by Europe’s elected leaders could serve as a check on the commission’s power, ensuring that national governments remained at the forefront of major decisions.
Europe’s leaders also feared that the new “president of Europe” might overshadow their own positions. Thus, Blair — a larger-than-life personality who, critics say, might have done more to force a comprehensive agreement to the debt crisis — was cast aside in favor of the soft-spoken, more media-shy Van Rompuy.
Van Rompuy, who declined an interview request, has been lauded for fulfilling the role that European leaders have assigned him: building consensus. Especially in the early stages of the crisis in 2010, European diplomats and observers familiar with E.U. decision-making say, Van Rompuy helped convince the reluctant German Chancellor Angela Merkel that a Greek bailout was needed, and he negotiated hard to bring other skeptical euro-zone nations on board.
But increasingly, Van Rompuy has been criticized for being a background figure at a time when the region needs a strong leader.
“Is Van Rompuy a leader?” asked Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former foreign minister. “Van Rompuy is more the secretary.”
Indeed, Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have repeatedly seemed to undermine Van Rompuy, hinting at just how difficult it may be for euro-zone nations to cede real power. Late last year, Van Rompuy negotiated a hard-fought agreement with European nations on how to keep budgets in line and prevent a new crisis, only to find that Germany and France had reached their own, very different bilateral accord the same day.
“It was almost a slam in his face — it was the Germans and the French saying, ‘We simply don’t care what you say, we will supersede you and make our own agreement,’ ” said Karel Lannoo, chief executive of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies.
Van Rompuy is now being tasked with drafting a blueprint for bolder steps by Europe, including creating a “financial czar” position whose holder could compel profligate European nations to change their ways.
But just how deeply and quickly Europe integrates is still largely up to Germany and France, which have sharply different visions.
Speaking about Van Rompuy’s job in a recent interview, Ivan Miklos, Slovakia’s finance minister, said that “everyone sees that it doesn’t work, but not because of the person in the job. The problem is that we still don’t have a consensus on integration, on what Europe really wants to be.”
Correspondent Michael Birnbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.