Jean-Luc Dehaene dies at 74 – Election campaign comes to a halt
On Thursday, the 15th of May, former Prime Minister of Belgium (1992-1999) and Minister of State (an honourary title awarded to politicians with a remarkable record) Jean-Luc Dehaene died at the age of 74.
Dehaene was the political face of Belgium during the nineties. His career extends way beyond his time in the “Wetstraat 16” (the office of the prime minister): he is a founding father of the Belgian federal state, he secured Belgium's entry into the euro, and is an architect of the EU as we know it today.
Mr Dehaene, just recovered from pancreatic cancer, died of a fall while on vacation in Brittany, France.
Dehaene was often called ‘the plumber’, a nickname given to him due to his incredible skills to fix compromises and seek pragmatic solutions when political positions were diametrically opposed. He was known to be a down-to-earth politician, who famously refused to answer hypothetical questions from journalists saying that “problems should be solved only as they arise”.
His death occurred just ten days before the Belgian regional, federal as well as European elections, in the heat of a rather hard political campaign. His own party, the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), decided to pause their election campaign until after the weekend, cancelling all planned events and debates. Also, the other Flemish parties put their campaign on hold.
Architect of the Belgian Federal State
Dehaene started his political career in the study center of the ACW, a labor movement closely linked to the Christian-Democratic parties in Belgium. He later served during the 70s as a political advisor and later as a head of cabinet for several government ministers. He became the minister for social affairs in 1981, a position he held for more than 10 years during the economic downturn in the 1980s.
During the long Belgian political of crisis of 1987, Dehaene stepped to the political forefront as ‘formateur’ and managed to negotiate a new state reform and form a government after 148 days of political gridlock. While Wilfried Martens (CD&V) returned as prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene became the most important man in Belgian politics.
Dehaene became prime minister for the first time in 1992. During two consecutive governments, he managed to reform Belgium into a federal state and to guide the country back to fiscal health and into the euro. Dehaene also had to lead Belgium during the eruption of the Dutroux crisis, a scandal that lead to a severe breach of public trust in politics and triggered a far-reaching reform of the Belgian polices services. Despite this, Dehaene became one of Belgium’s most popular politicians, mainly because of his informal no-nonsense style of politics and communication and his passion for football, Belgium’s most popular sport.
The Dehaene era in Belgian politics eventually ended when a major food scare broke out just weeks before the 1999 elections. The Christian-Democrats suffered a historic defeat and Guy Verhofstadt from the Flemish liberal party VLD replaced Dehaene as prime minister at the head of a coalition government of socialist, liberal and green parties.
After losing the elections Dehaene retired from the national scene, to focus on local and European politics. He also served as a board member of several important Belgian companies such as the beer giant InBev and as chairman of the bank Dexia after a government bail-out during the financial crisis. Dehaene remained available for public service and was later asked to act as a mediator during the Belgian political crisis in 2007-2008.
Dehaene’s European footprint
After his national political career, Dehaene headed for Europe. He was elected as MEP in 2004 though his European career had started almost started ten years earlier. After the successful Belgian presidency of the Council, Dehaene was in 1994 about to be nominated as the successor of Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission, but eventually he was vetoed by the UK for being “too federalist”.
In 2001 Dehaene became vice-president of the Convention on the Future of Europe. Together with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Giuliano Amato he drafted the European Constitutional Treaty that never got fully ratified but later got accepted as a modified version with the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008.
During the last years, Dehaene was actively involved in a number of budgetary and economic dossiers as member of European Parliament, such as the negotiation of the current Multiannual Financial Framework of the European Union, or as the Parliament’s rapporteur for the “own resources” (a direction taxation system for EU’s budget) for the European Union.
State funeral two days before European elections
On Friday the 23th of May – 2 days before the elections – Dehaene will be given a state funeral in his hometown of Vilvoorde. Political commentators are meanwhile speculating whether the events might trigger some “sympathy votes” for the Christian Democrats. A major effect appears to be unlikely however, as Dehaene was no longer actively participating in the political debate and was no longer standing for elections.
On request of his family, the funeral will be a rather intimate and sober happening. No cameras or microphones are allowed in the Church. Instead of flowers or wreaths, his family asks to make a gift for the cancer foundation Mr. Dehaene had set up shortly before he died.