Charles Michel, the compromise builder

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has been nominated by EU leaders as President of the European Council. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Embattled at home in politically divided Belgium, Mr Nice Guy on European stage – outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Chárles Michel, whom EU leaders designated to take over the European Council helm from Donald Tusk, might prove to be an unexpected, but suitable pick.

Ten years after Herman van Rompuy, Belgium is on course to occupy a European top job again, with Michel set to replace Tusk on 1 December.

“Charles Michel will, with his experience as Belgian Prime Minister, be ideal for finding consensus and building unity among Member States,” said Tusk after EU leaders reached an agreement on the overall top job package.

With a highly fragmented political system, Belgium is no stranger to political crises. And the 43-year-old Michel is seen as cool-headed and an effective conciliator in a country divided by language, wealth and politics.

Michel is the oldest son of Louis Michel, a former Belgian European Commissioner, minister and former party chairman of the Frankophone-liberal Mouvement Reformateur (MR).

A lawyer by training, he entered politics as a provincial counsellor in the Walloon Brabant region aged 18, after studying in Brussels and Amsterdam.

Since then, he has become one of the leading figures of the French-speaking Liberals and was party chairman and minister aged 25, before in 2014 becoming the youngest Belgian prime minster since 1845 when he was 38.

The Belgian political system requires a government to be made up of parties from across the linguistic divide, a process that inevitably means strange ideological compromises, and has led in the past to Belgium being government-less for long periods of time.

In 2010-11, political deadlock saw Belgium take the record for the longest time taken to form a new government after an election, at 353 days, held until then by Cambodia.

After difficult coalition talks in 2014 between his own MR, the conservative CD&V, liberal Open VLD and right-wing Flemish nationalist N-VA, Michel was put forward as prime minister of the only French-speaking government party, which at that time represented only 25% of the French-speaking population.

His so-called Swedish coalition, in which the blue flag stands for liberal, yellow for N-VA and the cross for CD&V, has been called ‘kamikaze government’, due to the decision to cooperate with the Flemish nationalists, which critics said compromised him politically by effectively endorsing the N-VA’s strongly anti-migrant policies.

At the end of last year,  Michel’s administration lost the support of the N-VA, its biggest Flemish coalition partner, out of dissatisfaction with the government’s backing for the UN’s Global Compact on Migration.

Although he tried to carry on with the three remaining parties as a minority government by seeking a coalition of goodwill to keep the government afloat until May’s federal elections, he failed to secure the support of parliament and was forced to step down.

The country has been led by a minority caretaker government since the federal elections in May, when Belgium’s ‘Black Sunday’ saw a far-right surge that threatens a new government crisis.

Belgium's 'Black Sunday' sees far-right surge, threatens new government crisis

Extreme-right Flemish separatist party Vlaams Belang gained big in Belgium’s triple elections on Sunday (26 May), complicating efforts to form the next federal government as French-speaking Walloons voted for radically opposite parties on the left of the political spectrum.

Michel’s nomination for the EU stage is a good exit strategy for him from domestic politics.

Michel built a solid European network during his premiership, developing personal relationships with many of his EU counterparts during official visits via private dinners or drinks after EU summits.

Along with Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel and Dutch premier Mark Rutte, he has formed a trio of liberal Benelux leaders giving an image of unity and convergence on major European issues such as Brexit.

French President Emmanuel Macron said at a press conference on Tuesday (2 July), that with Michel at the helm of the European Council, he hopes to see closer cooperation on different formats to relaunch the European project.

“Michel is a real European, moreover coming from a member country of the euro zone and the Schengen zone,” said Macron, referring to the two largest cooperation formats which allow European integration to move at different speeds.

In fact, Michel was one of the first EU leaders to respond to eastern European opposition to burden-sharing on migration by suggesting the EU was heading for a ‘two-tier’ union with reluctant states such as Poland and Hungary losing some rights.

“He is a leader who will be able to assume new formats”, added Macron, who is pushing for a multi-speed Europe against a Germany more concerned to keep the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in the same circle.

When his nomination was announced, Michel said he is ready to stand up for EU “values”.

“The appointment as President is a responsibility and a task that I will carry out with commitment, an EU united in respect of national diversity will be my objective,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Solidarity, freedom and respect are at the heart of it. (…) I will stand up for these values,” he added.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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