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Alexander De Croo

18:00 12/08/2011

Young, ambitious and with a background in business, Alexander De Croo shot to the head of the Flemish Liberal party 18 months ago without ever having held a political mandate before. Leo Cendrowicz met him for lunch, and found a man who, in spite of the political stasis, has action very much on his mind

Alexander De Croo saunters into the restaurant looking the picture of fresh-faced confidence. Not the slightest sign of stress or strain since he was elected head of the Flemish centre right liberals, Open VLD, 18 months ago. Nor any sense of gloom or remorse over the current Belgian government crisis which – if you date it from the last federal elections – is one year old and counting.

De Croo is, however, keen to order. Despite sporting a lean, slim figure, he has a fierce appetite, and is quick to uphold the values of Belgian eating, even if our restaurant – the Bocconi at Brussels’ Amigo Hotel – has an Italian twist. “If you’ve lived in Belgium for any time, you know that food is important,” he says.

His figure, he insists, is down to the demands of the job. While he used to swim, bike and ride horses, only the riding has survived in any semi-regular form in his routine. And even that was dramatically interrupted just the week after last year’s elections when he broke his foot and elbow: riding in a parade through Michelbeke, his horse was frightened by the sound of a brass band and stumbled, partly landing on De Croo. “But I have been riding since I was five, so to break something once in thirty years…well, if a footballer remained injury-free for thirty years, that would be amazing.”

De Croo is just 35 years old, which seems almost absurdly young to be the leader of a major political party. Granted, he’s not William Pitt the Younger, who became British Prime Minister at 24, nor even his predecessor, Guy Verhofstadt, who first led the Flemish liberals (then named PVV), when he was 29. But it is still young enough to appear precocious, even impudent.

Indeed, he makes the point that the generation gap is a contributing factor to Belgium’s political crisis. “All the presidents of the parties on the Flemish side are quite young – in their early forties, late thirties,” he says. That includes Caroline Gennez, who heads the Flemish Socialist sp.a, also 35; Wouter Beke, who leads the Christian Democrat CD&V, 36; and Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish nationalist N-VA at 40. “But more important than the age is that they are quite new. We know each other but have never been in a situation where we have to work together. And on the French side, all the presidents have been in their positions for ten years or so: Elio Di Rupo with the socialists, Joëlle Milquet with the cdH, while Didier Reynders at the MR has only just been replaced by Charles Michel. So there is a completely different perspective. On the French side, they have dug themselves into the ground.”

Likewise, De Croo rejects suggestions that the new generation of politicians is failing to meet the standards of wily fixers like Verhofstadt in the 2000s, Jean-Luc Dehaene in the 1990s, and Wilfried Martens in the 1980s. “If you look at the period from 1980 to 1990, we had eleven governments,” he says. “So to say things were better then, I don’t think so. But history will judge. And part of the reason we are in this situation is that while the previous generation made some good choices, they made some bad choices too. Some of the problems they just put in the fridge.”

The previous generation, of course, includes his father Herman De Croo, a minister in the 1970s and 1980s, head of the Flemish liberals between 1995 and 1997, and president of the Chamber of Representatives for eight years until 2007. The younger De Croo admits that name recognition has helped his career, but he also underlines how much he did to plough his own furrow.
“I grew up in a political family, but I always did everything to keep away from politics as a child because I did not want to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he says. “In fact, I have often done the opposite to my father so that I would not follow in his slipstream.”

Born in Vilvoorde, outside Brussels, he went to school in Ronse, a small village south of Ghent that lies on the language border. His home is 12km east of Ronse in Brakel, where his father is the fifth generation De Croo mayor (strange to tell, Rudi Demotte, the Socialist Minister-President of Wallonia, was born in Ronse and raised in Brakel).

With his father so deeply involved in politics, De Croo had early exposure to the ideas, debates, deals and personalities of the era. “I grew up around politics, I was always part of it. In particular, I saw the heavy social part – taking up the whole weekend – because as a child, my father took me with him,” he says. But despite the toll it sometimes took on the family, he got hooked too. “I was always interested. I would argue strongly with friends at school. But I wanted to keep away, to go my own way.”

After graduating in economics, or ‘business engineering’, from Brussels Free University (VUB), De Croo spent three years in Chicago at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, studying for a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). Studying abroad was a refreshing break for him, and one he heartily recommends to Belgian students. “We Belgians like to stay under the church tower. We are very local people,” he says.

While studying, he was already working with the Boston Consulting Group, where he stayed until 2006, and these stateside experiences have lent him a sharp business mind as well as a smooth American-English accent. Five years ago, he helped found Darts-ip, a Brussels-based consultancy on intellectual property. “So I built my own company,” he says. “But I always thought that one day, I would enter politics. I’ve always known it. Whenever I listened to my father speak, I would think and listen carefully, because you never know if it might be useful later on.”

Things went faster than expected. He took part in his first election in 2009, the European elections. “I had to fight with my father who wanted to put me in a position where I could be easily elected,” he says, “I didn’t want it, I wanted to test it out to see if it worked, if I liked it and if people liked me.” Although he was not elected, he had momentum: less than a year later, he was Open VLD president. “To be honest, I did not expect it,” he says. “When they had the election, my idea was that I should take part, as this was a great occasion to show what I can do. I did not think I would win, but at least people would get to know me. And then I won…”

Despite his famed father, De Croo says his business life before politics makes him a rare breed. “I come from a different background,” he says. “One of the weaknesses of Belgian politics is that there is not much movement to and from business. We could do with outside perspectives. We have people who are too attached to their political mandates because they have never done anything else. Also, Belgian corporations are not inclined to take people with marked political leanings. So the trend is against me. Most people who move from business to politics fail.”

Within four months of becoming leader of Open VLD, he triggered the current crisis when he pulled his party out of Yves Leterme’s delicately balanced coalition government. The reason was ostensibly about the government’s failure to meet a deadline for resolving the obscure yet intractable institutional talks about the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) constituency. However, that was seen by his detractors as an excuse for grabbing headlines, and he was labelled reckless, a sorcerer’s apprentice, playing with matches next to a powder keg – an especially risky move considering Open VLD’s traditional pragmatism over language issues.

De Croo has no regrets. “There is a difference between taking a decision on what you think is right, and what happens next,” he says. “Nothing was moving at that point. We pulled out of government because of BHV, but there were other things too, like pension and legal and labour market reforms. I’m not in government just to say I’m in government. I want to do things.”

The subsequent elections, where the polar opposites N-VA and the francophone Socialist PS were the big winners, were followed by the long political stalemate that still endures. But if bringing down the government was an electoral strategy, it failed: Open VLD’s share of the vote in Flanders crashed from 18.8 percent to 13.6 percent. De Croo insists, however, that this was not due to his walkout, saying that internal surveys showed that voters rejected Open VLD more because it did not fulfil its promises on issues like voting rights for immigrants. “In fact, we said, ‘this government is not doing what it should’. And voters said the same thing,” he says.

De Croo points out that Open VLD can’t be blamed for the year-long impasse as it has been ignored by the succession of royal ‘informateurs’. “It is hard to blame us for what has happened over the past year: we have not been part of the negotiations,” he says, holding responsible those parties supposedly attempting to build a coalition administration. “When people vote for politicians, they expect them to do things. They don’t expect a Cold War between parties.”

De Croo also says that the crisis has, at the very least, forced a serious debate on the language issues that had been festering for too long. “When we pulled out, the French-speaking parties did not feel any sense of urgency about change. Obviously, that has changed since then: they have moved a gigantic step forward,” he says. “And one of the consequences of the crisis is that we have had to listen to each other more.” De Croo adds that if the elections had not been held last year, they would have been campaigning, since the poll was planned for June 2011.

So can Belgium be fixed? “Definitely,” he says. “This is a country with incredible assets. Great location, a lot of international institutions, highly educated population, language knowledge. You could say that with these gigantic advantages, we have been falling asleep a bit, without taking reforms. Things have often been too easy for Belgium.”

De Croo is not bothered by the lack of a common identity. He points out that Jules Destrée, the Walloon Socialist politician, wrote his famous open letter to the King saying, “Il n’y a pas de Belges” in 1912, almost a century ago. “The fact that we don’t really have a common identity, and we have different opinions has always been there. We did not become a poor country. On the contrary, we became a very, very rich country,” he says. “People say we cannot have an efficient political system because we don’t have a common identity – but I don’t believe it. I see identity as very personal. We Belgians are very individualistic. We will do everything to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours: I don’t even see a common identity in Flanders. Striving for a common identity is not a goal for me.”

This dispassionate view of national identity seems to reflect both De Croo’s liberal instincts and his business pragmatism. “Politics is management, it’s governing a country, and has nothing to do with identity,” he says. “Of course, it does not mean we should not reform. Clearly we have to modernise. We will have to move to give regions more autonomy and responsibility. Will we come to a one hundred percent agreement? No, but that has never been the case. The Belgian system is a compromise system, where changes are not that big, but we go forward. But it should be possible to have a government by September.”

But if that happens, De Croo does not expect to be involved. In fact, he’s already made holiday plans for August, when he will rent a home near Biarritz. And in October, his wife is due to give birth to their second son. Their first born, Tobias, is two-and-a-half, and De Croo dotes over him, taking him swimming, and bringing him to school twice a week. Will his sons follow family tradition, continuing the political dynasty? “I don’t know,” De Croo says. “But I hope he is curious, and open to try things, and if he tries something, he does it seriously.”

What he had: La milanaise de veau et le riz croustillant al Salto
Tiramisu ‘Bocconi’

Written by Leo Cendrowicz