The Brief, powered by FACEBOOK – Michel’s musical chairs

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

EU Council President Charles Michel (L) and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) at the start of a video call with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not seen) in Brussels, Belgium, 19 March 2021. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ / POOL]

European Council President Charles Michel missed a few good chances in Ankara. But despite his apology tour, where he tried to frame the ‘Sofagate’ incident as a diplomatic snub rather than a sexist move towards a female leader, this musical chair mishap will mark his mandate, which is up for evaluation in less than a year.

We can all agree that there are many things Michel could have said and done in Ankara and the week after and that blunders were made by the EU’s protocol team, who may have just been outsmarted by the Turkish side.

Earlier Michel wrote on Facebook: “I am sad that it seems as if I am insensitive to the situation in which Ursula found itself.”

He and von der Leyen will meet in person on Monday (12 April) for the first time since the incident in Ankara.

A petition calling for Michel’s resignation had garnered more than 5,000 signatures as of Monday morning, arguing that the Council chief hurt the bloc’s diplomacy as well as women’s rights with the ‘Sofagate’ incident and his subsequent apology.

The petition is the latest challenge to the EU’s (and Michel’s) leadership.

Let’s remember that the two previous Council chiefs also had their share of clashes with their respective European Commission president.

We remember when José Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy only half-jokingly argued about who was allowed to go through a door first. Or when the Nobel Peace Prize was received by three EU presidents for the sake of compromise.

Interestingly, the ‘sofa incident’ in Ankara has also revealed that the two EU leaders have been competing on foreign policy since the start of their mandate, both viewing it as a way of giving shine to their role, and thus stepping on each other’s toes.

But in the end, the incident was less about the sofa, and more about the leadership and the lack thereof.

‘Like two children in a kindergarten’, German Der Spiegel wrote in June last year about the difficult relationship between the two leaders, who both ultimately owe their posts to France’s Emmanuel Macron. 

Unlike other EU top jobs, the EU Council seat is as important or unimportant as the politician occupying the position decides to make it. Thus, the EUCO gets the leaders it deserves (and picks).

Michel was lifted into his post as someone who had a reputation as consensus builder, having served as prime minister of politically divided Belgium for four years from 2014 during a particularly turbulent period.

But the truth is, neither Von der Leyen nor Michel was picked for their leadership qualities or expertise. Michel, in particular, seems to have been chosen as a compromise to placate more powerful member state leaders.

Asked by EURACTIV, what Michel wants to achieve as Council President, since, potentially, he may have only nine months left on the job, his team declined to comment, saying only that “the president has a busy week ahead”.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council appoints a full-time president for a two-and-a-half-year term, with the possibility of renewal once.

Five years have become the norm after Van Rompuy and his successor Tusk.

But who can say, perhaps Michel will become the first Council president to only serve 2.5 years. Right now, it looks increasingly hard to argue in that he should stay for another term.

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The Roundup

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Germany’s far-right AfD party vowed to campaign for an end to COVID-19 restrictions, a tougher line on migration and an exit from the EU as it finalised its manifesto for the September elections, with the radical wing of the party succeeding in radicalising the party programme in key points.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex and former president François Hollande are among a number of French politicians who have been interviewed live on Twitch in recent months, with the video streaming platform being seen as a way to reconnect with disaffected youth.

A Hungarian radio station critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that was forced off the air in February said its former frequency had been handed to a station owned by a government-friendly group.

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Look out for…

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Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

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