Herman Van Rompuy was the first full-time President of the European Council. He was elected for the first time in November 2009, then re-elected for a second term from June 2012 to November 2014. Before that, he was the Prime Minister of Belgium. In a crowded room at the Graduate Institute, he delivered a lecture on how to navigate Europe in a world that finds itself in a global storm – with multilateralism under threat, rapidly changing values and power relations, and against a backdrop of revolutionary technological developments and climate challenges.
"Clearly, these are challenging times not only for the EU but the international community as a whole," said Ambassador Stevens, Head of the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva in his opening remarks. "We, the EU, are ready to play our part." Quoting the outgoing EU High Representative he added: "In un-strategic times, the world needs reliable global powers. The European Union has been in difficult times, on most of the issues, that reliable global power that is big enough able to create a sort of umbrella for others to come and feel less lonely in a difficult world."
Ambassador Geert Muylle of Belgium underlined in his introduction of Herman van Rompuy: "He is a true European."
Mr van Rompuy introduced to the audience to the imminent challenges that he sees facing the EU and presented insightful perspectives and priorities on how to address them.
"These are strange times for the world, the West, the nation states and the European Union. Established values and institutions, internal and international power relations, are changing rapidly, against a backdrop of revolutionary developments in the digital field and with regard to the climate. There's uncertainty all over the world," said Herman van Rompuy at the outset of the conference.
How to be strong? What should be the EU's strategic agenda for the coming years?
First of all, Herman van Rompuy placed great importance on the EU to remain faithful to its principles: "The first area where this applies is trade. The EU has remained almost the only defender of free and fair trade and rules-based trade. However, protecting without falling into the trap of protectionism, that is the challenge. And our approach is: firmness and dialogue" - firmness on our principles, and readiness to negotiate and compromise.
Secondly, the Union must defend their interests in various areas in the name of European sovereignty or autonomy. "You can’t have European sovereignty without European competitiveness, as we offer the largest single market in the world." More, however, has to be done to advance the digital era in Europe, to include women into STEM, and crucially to invest more in research and innovation and in cooperation between Member States.
In addition to sovereignty, cohesion and unity are major objectives of the Union. "We are more united than many think." This gives the EU the leverage to be a global player on the international stage.
Herman van Rompuy concluded with remarks on choices to be made on the international level: "and the choice should be on the side of multilateralism, coming back to our firmness on our principles. Saving multilateralism is a major priority in the coming years."
He ended his lecture on a positive note amidst the stormy developments and pessimism surrounding us: "People may not be happy with the EU, but they are increasingly happy in the EU. Leaving is not the wish of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the EU27. Support for EU membership is now at its highest for 27 years."
In the subsequent discussion, the audience engaged in a fruitful and enriching exchange with Herman van Rompuy, moderated by the Professor for International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute, Stefanie Hofmann.
You can read the full lecture by Mr van Rompuy here.