What Shakespeare taught Herman Van Rompuy about politics

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s comedy about love and mistaken identity, an appearance is made by an old and spiteful character called Malvolio. His is a support role, the head servant in the household of Countess Olivia (one of the play’s shiny lead characters), who spends her time in nightly liaisons with her well-bred friends and peers.

Purporting to uphold puritan values, Malvolio turns up his nose to the frolicsome behaviour of his social superiors, some of whom – he has to be granted this – are wallowing in melodramatic self-obsession. But Malvolio’s own moral flaw is that he harbours socially upward ambitions himself. In fact, he wants nothing more than to join his Lady and Lordships.

Using clever subterfuge, some of the play’s characters then conspire to trick Malvolio into believing such an ascent is preordained. He starts fantasising about becoming Olivia’s husband and “Count Malvolio”. Be not afraid of greatness, they whisper in his ear, “cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants. Let thy tongue tang arguments of state.”

By now utterly convinced, Malvolio blindly follows some very bad advice, believing – wrongly – this will impress his mistress. It sees him dress in women’s clothes among other things. But of course he only succeeds in making a complete fool of himself, inviting ridicule and – worse – pity. The Countess promptly concludes Malvolio has lost his wits and banishes him to a room cloaked in darkness, from where he, viciously mocked by clowns, exits the stage in ignominy and shame.

If Malvolio’s fate holds lessons for European Council presidents, Herman van Rompuy has shown he understands them well. Never did he seek to upstage the play’s lead characters. Nor did he succumb to delusions of greatness. Ending his mandate on 1 December, people may well say his most important achievement is saving the euro. When few of us gave a penny for its survival, he prevented the currency’s collapse.

But there is more than that. Van Rompuy has shown us how the part of president is played. He gave this new character a place in Europe’s dramatis personae, somewhere in between bit-part and lead role. So perfectly was the former Belgian prime minister cast for his role that he has now come to define it. Herman Van Rompuy has become to the part of European Council president, what Sean Connery is to James Bond.

Famously attacked for being “a grey mouse” and a political nobody, he and his aides and confidants must have felt moments of temptation, however fleeting, to smash this image and reach for the stars. And perhaps for Van Rompuy – unlike Malvolio – there was, in these crisis ridden years, real opportunity to achieve greatness. But what trumped such temptation was greater judgment and, it seems, a sincere lack of political vanity.

Punctuated by the occasional but cerebral foray into public discourse, he plied his daily trade in the half-light, forever kneading and moulding diverging opinion into consensus, deftly, pragmatically and if needed playing the perfect foil for Europe’s own Countess, Angela Merkel. We will soon find out whether Donald Tusk is made of the same moral stuff. But for the time being I find it hard to see anyone else in the role than the Jesuit-trained Flemish Christian Democrat.

*Note: This article is originally published in Dutch, in the Belgian paper De Standaard, 24 November 2014.