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Meet Herman "the gray mouse" van Rompuy

The EU's new president, Belgian Herman van Rompuy, faces challenges of his own and others' making.

EU President-elect Herman van Rompuy speaks during a news conference in Riga, Dec. 2, 2009. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — “Herman, Herman, he’s not English, French or German” begins a tribute version of the very popular (in Belgium) song “Potverdekke! It’s great to be a Belgian,” by Brussels-based English singer-songwriter Mister John.

For those not on a first-name basis with Europe’s newest boss, the song honors Herman van Rompuy, who this week started his term as the European Union’s first president.

So he’s not English, French or German — what is he?

Even van Rompuy's full name won’t ring a lot of bells outside Belgium. Plucked from general obscurity — he was prime minister of this relatively small European state — van Rompuy takes a seat few people even know exists. The EU’s Lisbon Treaty, fully ratified by all 27 member states late last year, for the first time gives the title of “president” to an individual, not just a country. (EU nations take turns serving as "president" every six months.)

The job description was remarkably thin at conception, with the expectation that the first person to hold the post would be largely responsible for defining its character and color, in addition to the administrative responsibilities of chairing the head-of-state meetings of the European Council meetings and providing continuity between the rotating member-state presidencies. The job does not come with dedicated palatial grounds, only a housing allowance, or a private jet, although that was at one point under consideration. The president does not have the power to hire and fire, and will have no budget other than for his office and staff of about 20 people.

It soon became clear how "colorful" EU leaders wanted their president to be.

Van Rompuy’s low profile was one of the reasons he was selected unanimously by his 26 counterparts on the European Council. After France and Germany decided they didn’t want a strong personality in the new slot who could rival them for power and attention (killing most notably the candidacy of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair), van Rompuy’s nomination emerged as the path of least resistance.

The choice was immediately criticized as unimaginative and a huge disappointment for those who had wanted a dynamic EU president able to impact international decision-making. While ostentatiousness is certainly no synonym for effectiveness, charm does come in handy when trying to forge consensus and van Rompuy is, frankly, going to have rely on other tools. “So much of diplomacy is based upon charisma, and van Rompuy is at best a least common denominator selection,” said Associate Professor of Political Science at Adelphi University Katie Laatikainen, an analyst of EU multilateral relations.

In fact, van Rompuy is often referred to as the “gray mouse."

Surprisingly, that term has roots neither in disparagement nor van Rompuy's professorial appearance. It was van Rompuy himself, quoted in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen, who explained that to rise to the upper ranks of the EU, one must “not ask for high office, but become a gray mouse, and offers will come.”