Home Society ‘Pissed off, and rightly so.’ EU fury at Charles Michel stepping down
‘Pissed off, and rightly so.’ EU fury at Charles Michel stepping down

‘Pissed off, and rightly so.’ EU fury at Charles Michel stepping down

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BRUSSELS — Has Charles Michel screwed up?

European diplomats and officials certainly think so and have lambasted the European Council president’s decision to run as a candidate for the European Parliament. If he is elected, Michel plans to take up his seat in mid-July, well before his term as Council president ends in November. 

“It’s an absolutely scandalous thing to have done,” said Andrew Duff of the European Policy Centre.

As Europe watches — and struggles with — two major wars on its doorstep, Michel’s exit from one of the most important jobs in the EU institutions cog is seen as a signal that the 48-year-old Belgian cares more about his future job prospects than about his current role. 

His bombshell announcement this week risked creating a conflict of interest, six EU diplomats and three EU officials said, as Michel would be running for one job while still doing another. As a result, diplomats and politicians are asking if it would be better if he didn’t just quit immediately after the European election in June, or even sooner. 

One EU diplomat, granted anonymity — like others in this piece — to speak freely, summed up the feeling of many in Brussels, saying: “The bottom line is that the European Council is unlikely to let itself be hijacked … [by] a campaign stunt…It’s quite disingenuous and disrespectful to the role of the European Council.” 

An official close to Michel stressed that EU leaders were not caught off-guard and that they were informed as soon as possible. “We informed leaders at the right time to avoid leaks,” said the official close to Michel. “Some leaders were informed directly by him, some others indirectly,” said the official, referring to an email that was sent by Michel’s office to the leaders’ so-called sherpas, the officials who work shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders on EU issues. 

Now, Michel is facing an increasing backlash over how he let leaders know that he would run as a candidate. The former Belgian prime minister publicly announced his decision late Saturday evening in interviews with Belgian media ahead of the New Year’s reception of his party. 

But one of the EU officials rebuked that version of events, saying that Michel only properly talked over the decision with his buddy French President Emmanuel Macron, while merely sending an email to the offices of other European leaders, leaving “all of them pissed off, and rightly so.”

An EU diplomat said that “member states were not consulted in advance about Michel‘s decision. Obviously, capitals were not amused that they were informed at the same time as media started to report.”

Latvia’s Foreign Minister Krišjānis Kariņš told POLITICO’s Power Play podcast that Michel’s announcement took him “a little bit by surprise” and added that it creates a “difficulty” for handling the top job discussions.

Before the European parliamentary election in early June, Michel will have to walk a fine line between campaigning for his party, the Belgian liberal Reformist Movement (MR), and forging compromises among the 27 capitals. 

EU diplomats and politicians are asking if it would be better if Michel didn’t just quit immediately after the election in June, or even sooner | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

There are fears about whether Michel will use the trappings of his current office to campaign, for example staff and budget, two EU officials said. No European Council president has campaigned for a seat in the European Parliament (Michel is only the third person to have done the job), leaving officials scrambling over how to handle the situation.

“His track record isn’t particularly great when it comes to this, so you can feel capitals are getting nervous,” a second official said, referring to criticism about Michel’s sizeable travel expenses. 

Draft guidance prepared by the Council’s legal team, seen by POLITICO, tries to avoid such conflicts, saying that budget or staff “can not be used for activities linked to the electoral campaign.” Michel would however still benefit from security protection, even during campaign events, says the same draft. An EU official close to Michel said: “He will have a team, no resources will be used.”

After the election, things become tricky. 

European leaders are scheduled to meet on June 17 and again on June 27-28 to discuss a replacement for Michel — though the role of European Council chief is normally one that’s part of the protracted horse-trading among political groupings that follow EU elections.

In normal circumstances, Michel would play a key role in forging that compromise. “At the heart of this process is the credibility and objectivity of the outgoing president of the European Council,” Duff said, adding that it’s the moment of “peak power” in the job. 

But if the Belgian becomes one of the chess pieces on the board — or aspires to be one — that credibility falls apart. 

“Whether a candidacy for the European Parliament is right in view of this responsibility is something Charles Michel must assess for himself,” Austria’s EU minister Karoline Edtstadler told local press on Tuesday.

Michel’s decision had an immediate effect. He had pushed for a discussion on the so-called “Strategic Agenda,” the legislative priorities for the coming years. Now leaders are reluctant to continue the discussion, because much of this legislation would involve the European Parliament and he will likely be an MEP, a diplomat said.  

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Luc Frieden told POLITICO that Belgium’s PM Alexander De Croo, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU until the end of June, could take over Michel’s role, or that leaders could appoint an interim candidate to finish the term. That would give European leaders time to discuss the entire top jobs package. 

“My personal preference at this moment is that we find an interim solution so that all these top functions can be filled together in light of the result of the European elections,” Frieden said.

In the European Parliament, however, some are already putting pressure on Michel to resign now. Jens Geier, the top German Social Democrat EU lawmaker, called Michel’s move an “ego trip” which makes it “necessary that he steps down from the office.”

Kathleen Van Brempt, a Belgian Socialist MEP, added: “I think he should apply the same rules as a commissioner and step down now or in a month’s time and start campaigning so that the Council can organize itself.

Michel will face MEPs in Strasbourg next Wednesday in a debate focused on the final and next European Council summits. 

Even before the announcement, Michel faced criticism over how he was doing the job. “I don’t think he’s been a great success,” said Duff, adding that if Michel believed he had been a good president, he would have been more likely to stay on.

But Michel has no intention of resigning. “He counts to be fully involved as European Council president, he’ll follow spotlessly the rules and there’s no reason for him to step down,” said the official close to him. 

Nicolas Camut contributed reporting. 

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