BRUSSELS (AP) — Former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who worked as hard to keep his linguistically divided nation together as he did to give Europe more unity, has died. He was 73.
Dehaene, a Dutch-speaking Christian Democrat, had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, but died following a fall in France, his party said.
Belgium has lost "an exceptional statesman," current Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said Thursday. "Jean-Luc was a special companion."
As Belgian prime minister from 1992 to 1999, Dehaene pushed through constitutional changes to turn a nation of 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million French-speakers into a federal state with sizable amounts of regional autonomy. Yet, it had enough glue to stay united.
He also made sure Belgium would become a founding member of the common-currency eurozone despite a massive national debt.
After he lost the 1999 elections, he turned his focus on Europe.
He had been key in brokering an EU constitution but after referendums in two member states rejected it, many parts of the plan were taken up by the treaty of Lisbon that currently sets policy for the 28-nation EU.
"It made me proud," he said.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy was a close party colleague throughout his career and only emerged from his shadows after he took on the biggest job in the EU in 2009.
"Only 10 days ago, I told him 'if I have been able to achieve something in Europe, it is because I learned it from you," Van Rompuy said on VRT television.
Throughout his career in Belgian and European Union politics, Dehaene excelled in the minutiae of legislative work, which made him the master of complicated compromise agreements that few outside the upper echelons of politics fully grasped.
Because of endless intricacies, it produced agreements between parties that would never have put a signature on the same piece of paper had it contained just plain text.
They called him "the plumber" because he was able to fix the seemingly unfixable. And if it took 100 days to do, he would persevere, relentlessly. That trait earned him the moniker "draft horse."
Portly and unapologetic for his gruff demeanor, his best known quote to the media was "no comment" — often followed by a menacing glare.
Many politicians, though, loved his style. "Very direct and straight-forward. Everyone loved to work with him," said Belgian Liberal Guy Verhofstadt, who succeeded him as prime minister.
Combining his love of soccer with his knowledge of finances, he also took the lead in UEFA's campaign to control excessive spending by Europe's top clubs.
"He was a statesman and a man of conviction," UEFA President Michel Platini said. "Through his love of football, he accepted to play a key role in the setting up of Financial Fair Play ... We are all going to miss his passion, simplicity, irreproachable professionalism and great sense of duty."
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