Give the Nerd a Chance

What has not been said about Herman ("Who?") Van Rompuy? That he's a clown, that he's odd, unknown, that he has a habit of cloistering himself in Benedictine monasteries to write meditative odes and haiku.

Harry Potter, Woody Allen, Tintin and their likes paved the way. Herman Van Rompuy, the big daddy of the nerds, for whom being gray is second nature and his primary color, who is so far from charismatic that he has only seen stardust in his rosiest dreams, and whose name alone is enough to cause mass flight: It is he, the ultimate anti-hero. And he and no other has been anointed by the Europeans as the first European president in the history of the old continent.

What has not been said about Herman ("Who?") Van Rompuy? That he's a clown, that he's odd, unknown, that he has a habit of cloistering himself in Benedictine monasteries to write meditative odes and haiku.

It is said that he has no vision or experience, a perfect "nobody" whose appointment overwhelmed Wikipedia with hysterical on-line comments.

And what has not been said about Europe, which chose to be led by such an odd man, of all people? That the continent has hit bottom, that it is responsible for this pitiful exercise in "euro-minimalism," that it has again not missed the chance for a ridiculous display of dullness, that it distanced itself from the circle of the world's major players and has become irrelevant.

When former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing undertook the task of drafting the European constitution about eight years ago, he promised the document's signatories that their busts would adorn the continent's cities. But where does America stand and where is Europe, where is George Washington and where is Van Rompuy?

Is it possible that the outgoing prime minister of Belgium will be the one to lead a continent whose gross domestic product is comparable to that of the United States? Is this the man who will attract the world's attention to a revitalized European Union, or in the words of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, to "stop the traffic" in Washington or Beijing?

One can understand the critics of this anti-climax following the euphoria of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU's constitutional document. One can understand those who are frustrated by this, and who in their mind's eye had already seen Europe become the "next thing" in the international arena. At the same time, the criticism presents a partial and distorted picture that does great injustice to Van Rompuy.

For example, it was argued that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not want a leader who would overshadow them, and therefore they appointed a "political dwarf."

True, but in the constant struggle between "Europe" and the nation-states of which it is composed, the power of the individual countries, especially France and Germany, is decisive.

So therefore the appointment of Van Rompuy should be seen as a positive development. He is a person trusted by the elements of the traditional power behind the union, without which the organization would not exist.

For that reason, it is possible that a charismatic personality like Tony Blair, who can "stop traffic" around the world, would find himself stuck in traffic in Europe itself. Power struggles would have wrecked the chances of advancing his initiatives. His record as a former leader of the most Euro-skeptic country on the continent, his total identification with the Bush administration and his involvement in the war in Iraq certain would not have helped him.

"Europe" was always a lofty ideal, the way to which is dull and down-to-earth, without a single flash of brilliance. Its leadership must mediate among 27 heterogeneous countries representing about half a billion people. They have to mediate between nationalist standard-bearers and supporters of a federal Europe, between right and left, north and south, large countries and small ones, between long-time members and new ones.

Under such circumstances, Van Rompuy could turn out to be a successful leader. He is considered a wizard at negotiations, a master of maneuver and compromise, a discrete team player who is an expert at building bridges and creating consensus.

This "virtuoso mediator" is also considered someone who pulled off the miracle of continuing the existence of the kingdom of Belgium as a single entity, at a time when people were already resigned to a split between the Flemish community and French-speaking Walloons.

The Lisbon Treaty gives Van Rompuy a new continental echelon, including a pan-European foreign service and thousands of representatives in 130 countries. In Israel there are those who remember his initial visit at the end of the 1980s, when it was said that his approach was sympathetic.

He might already be put to the test soon. The Swedes, who are serving in what will be the historic last of the EU's rotating presidencies, want to go home with an achievement by passing a declaration proclaiming East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The initiative is expected to fail.

If it passes, Israel is expected to view it as an act of arson in its relations with Europe. Van Rompuy may turn out to be the right person to extinguish the flames.