ER Editor: Part 2, following on from yesterday’s report —
In the new Politico piece below, notice the ridiculous photo of von der Leyen. Check out the mocking tone in the text about the way ‘leaders’ and the EU elections operate. Was it really a team of six Politico people who wrote this article? We believe there are a lot of comms in this piece, about the uselessness of the top people and the positions they occupy in this massive bureaucracy. So queries Politico —
Do we even need an EU Council president?
A reminder: Donald Tusk went back to national Polish politics from a top job in the EU in 2021; Frans Timmermans is stepping down to run in Dutch politics; now ditto for the useless Charles Michel. Ursula von der Leyen? We don’t even know if she’s still around. Nor for that matter do we actually know where any of them are. We believe the EU governing structure is being dismantled, or perhaps has been already.
Why is that a problem? Because without a permanent Council chief, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, whose country takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July, would lead the meetings instead. That’s a nightmare scenario for Brussels if the increasingly isolated Euroskeptic leader (ER: is he? He seems to have been operating from a position of strength somehow for months), who has attempted to thwart much of Brussels’ support to Ukraine amid its war with Russia, is handed such an opportunity.
Thanks to Michel’s move, the EU is in uncharted waters. The job of European Council president has existed only since 2009 when it came into being as part of the EU-reforming Lisbon Treaty. The job involves setting the European Council’s agenda and work schedule, as well as mediating between member states and representing the bloc on the international stage. Before Michel there were only two men (a woman has never held the role) to have done the job: the, er, magnetic Belgian Herman Van Rompuy and shrinking Polish violet Donald Tusk (whatever happened to him? ER: LOL, if it’s not a guy in a mask, he’s the new – recycled – ex-leader of Poland back in the job, prompting the question again, why would Tusk leave a key EU role for national politics?).
Michel has also now fired the starting pistol on the top jobs race, in which the EU’s leaders divvy up the spoils between the bloc’s main political groupings based on the results of the EP election (or by ignoring that election altogether and doing what they damn well please). The other politicians considering a run at an EU top job (including Michel’s nemesis from across the street, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has yet to declare if she wants a second term, as well as those rumored to fancy a new EU gig such as Danish PM Mette Frederiksen) may now have to show their hand earlier than anticipated.
Let’s take a deeper look at what this all means.
Politicians resign all the time. Why does this one matter?
Because it sends an odd signal about the importance, or lack thereof, of the European Council president’s job.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a U.S. president stepping down just six months before the end of their term, barring a case of force majeure like, erm, their assassination. Likewise, the drafters of the Lisbon Treaty didn’t foresee any scenario in which there would be an early exit barring an unspecified “impediment” or a “termination,” neither of which apply here.
So Michel’s early exit — amid an epic standoff with Hungary over the bloc’s policy of support for Ukraine — seems to signal, on one hand, that Michel doesn’t see his role as being terribly important. But on the other hand, it could also show that he is happy to leave the task of solving the EU’s problems to a successor, whoever that may be. For some diplomats, this could have positive implications by starting a debate on the top jobs now rather than having last-minute battles. Yet others don’t like the uncertainty as the EU faces two wars in its vicinity and a possible (LIKELY) Donald Trump presidency in 2024.
“It’s clear that [Michel’s departure] doesn’t help on topics of foreign affairs,” said a French diplomat who, like others in this piece, was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
Will Viktor Orbán become interim Council boss?
One reason why this is causing an early-January stir is that Michel’s early exit raises the possibility that Orbán could become European Council president by default. That’s because Budapest is taking over the EU’s rotating presidency in mid-2024 and if there’s no European Council chief, the leader of the country in the presidency chair would take over. Oh, the irony!
The prospect of Orbán chairing leaders’ meetings didn’t surprise one EU official who said that, inside the Council building, there has long been speculation about such as scenario, a sign that Michel was planning his move for a while. And, according to an official close to Michel, the leaders were not caught off-guard and mostly agreed with his move. “He contacted all the 27 and a broad majority supported the decision,” the official said.
So having Orbán in charge seems not to have scared the leaders. That’s probably because Michel’s office made clear that, legally, a simple majority would be enough to prevent Budapest taking the chair — although, one of the diplomats was quick to point out, that would essentially be a declaration of war against Orbán.
The diplomats who aren’t freaking out say that’s because there’s enough time to find the right name to replace Michel. “Last time on June 2nd it was all done,” said one of the diplomats. Three others made similar remarks.
Yet the name of the European Council’s president is usually part of a package, agreed upon by leaders along with the European Commission president and the EU’s top diplomat. And, with polls showing the far-right on the rise, “this time it could be more complicated to form a majority or we could have a very thin majority,” argued a senior EU official, which means that it could take longer to get people into jobs.
Is Michel going to campaign for the EP election and if so can he still do the Council job? Is the Belgian PM in charge now?
Michel’s office said he will campaign like any other leader would. (ER: Again, what’s REALLY going on?) The prime minister “of a country classically executes his function while still being able to campaign in and for national parliamentary elections. It would be the same case for the president of the European Council for, in this case, European Elections,” said the official close to Michel.
But how Michel will campaign has raised questions, especially as what he does could impact von der Leyen when she announces she wants a second term, as is expected. Michel is supposed to speak on behalf of the 27 countries, which he can’t do when he’s campaigning for a seat in the EP.
These doubts were summed up by a diplomat who said: “We will all keep a really close watch on what Michel will say and do during his campaign for the European Parliament” as “he can’t take any positions that will undermine his position as president” of the European Council. (ER: Which seems to put Michel in an impossible position.)
Does Michel really want to be an MEP? What else is he after?
Michel getting a seat in the European Parliament is almost guaranteed. But the former Belgian prime minister’s ambitions are expected to lie elsewhere, with the European assembly as a backup.
The European Parliament run can also be seen as a detour back to Belgian politics, one Belgian official and one EU official said. Michel’s predecessor, Tusk, went back to Polish politics and is now prime minister. Michel’s influence within his Belgian francophone liberal party (MR) is still strong and within Belgium, he is seen as a potential rival to others with ambitions to enter Rue de La Loi 16, where the Belgian prime minister has their office.
However, given the expected rise of the far-right in the Belgian elections and the complicated coalition negotiations that are likely to follow (remember, Belgium once went 541 days without a government), Michel may not get any clarity on his Belgian ambitions any time soon.
Do we even need an EU Council president?
(ER: Are we seeing a dismantling of the complicated EU structure?)
The complicated dynamic between the European Council and European Commission presidents has long been an issue, including when Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker were in office. It’s a dynamic that has often been referred to by diplomats as a “kindergarten.”
With Tusk and Juncker, the rivalry was more among top officials in their offices. With von der Leyen and Michel it’s different, as the lack of chemistry directly affects the two bosses. It exploded with the Sofagate scandal in 2021 …
Diplomats agree that starting such a debate would indeed open Pandora’s box and that many leaders like the EU having lots of top jobs — just in case they need work in future.
Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting.
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