Two-term prime minister who led Belgium into euro

Jean-Luc Dehaene: August 7th, 1940 -May 14th, 2014


Jean-Luc Dehaene, a two-term Belgian prime minister who led his country into the euro, has died at 73 after a fall on holiday in France.

Dubbed “the plumber” and “the minesweeper” for his coalition-building and arm-twisting skills, Dehaene bypassed parliament and pushed through painful budget cuts to ensure Belgium was among the euro’s founders in 1999. A Christian Democrat from Dutch-speaking Flanders, the food-and-soccer-mad Dehaene cultivated a man-of-the-people image. Soccer, he argued, “together with the king, is one of the binding elements in Belgium”.

In retirement Dehaene loomed increasingly as a relic of an earlier era of Belgian politics in which compromise between the Dutch and French regions was easier. After disputed elections in 2007 and 2010 he was twice asked by the king to mediate and twice failed to nudge forward the government talks. “I’m a politician from another era, literally another century,” he reflected.

Succession of ministries
He was born in Montpellier, France, where his parents had fled from the invading German army. He studied law and economics at universities in the Belgian cities of Namur and Leuven, heading the Flemish Catholic boy scouts before entering politics in 1967. He held a succession of ministries.

His political moment came in 1992, when failed attempts by two rivals to form governments spawned doubts over Belgium’s viability as a federal state. He put together a broad coalition, devolving some powers to Belgium’s French- and Dutch-speaking regions while pushing through spending cuts to slash Belgium’s debt, then the highest in Europe.

Dehaene’s vision of an integrated Europe made him favourite to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission in 1994, only to be vetoed at the last minute by UK prime minister, John Major. The British veto “was truly the basis for my popularity in Belgium,” Dehaene recalled.

During his second term Dehaene confronted a renewed loss of confidence in Belgium’s institutions when four girls were murdered by convicted sex offender Marc Dutroux. Amid allegations of official bungling, Dehaene unified Belgium’s disparate police forces.

Dehaene’s coalition appeared set for a third term in 1999 until a scandal over dioxin-tainted poultry.

After leaving office, Dehaene was elected to the European Parliament. He was vice-chairman of the committee that drafted the ill-fated EU constitution.

Direct and unpretentious
Paying tribute, former taoiseach John Bruton said: “He is a great loss . . . I found him to be a practical, direct and unpretentious leader . . . committed to his country and to making the EU work well for every country. As someone born in 1940 in enforced exile . . . he understood the importance of the EU to peace and security of the world.”

He and his wife, the former Celie Verbeke, published Cooking With Celie, a book of favourite recipes, in 2005. His website featured a coq au vin recipe with a photo of him, bare-chested, in a wine barrel.

He and his wife had four children.