“Unknown”, “ectoplasm”, “devoid of charisma”… the European press is unstinting in its accolades for the first full-time president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. Compared to Tony Blair, the Belgian prime minister is indeed regarded as a compromise-maker who isn’t likely to eclipse the “real” leaders of Europe like Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel.

But maybe these less than flattering epithets merely derive from the fact that Van Rompuy is from a “small” member country, of scant interest to other members’ media and governments, focused as they are on the “majors”: UK, France, Germany…. The Luxembourgian Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch Jan Peter Balkenende, likewise deemed wanting in charisma, also hail from “small” countries. As though the geographic size of a state rubbed off on its highest representative. And the press lost no time in making sardonic remarks about the alleged penury of panache in one “second-tier” personage or another – though they, too, ranked among the frontrunners for the post.

And whilst the Belgians see in Van Rompuy the man who managed to maintain a semblance of national unity, Balkenende and Juncker have kept themselves in power for a long time and still enjoy enviable popularity ratings, even as those of their “big” partners wane. The secret to their success? The art of compromise and consensus. This is precisely the modus operandi that the Union has always opted for in dealing with national vetoes – and that got it where it is today. J.S.