Former Belgian Prime Minister and current President of the European Council Charles Michel has vigorously defended himself against criticism of his "lavish" travel expenses and suggested that attacks against him are essentially attacks on the European Council as a whole.
"There are strict and transparent rules in the Council on missions and budgets," Michel told Le Soir in an interview published on Wednesday evening. "[Travel] costs more than before because the situation requires it, but there are no lavish expenses. There is simply the need to perform international actions in the interest of Europe."
He added: "By attacking me, you are attacking the institution and its 3,000 civil servants who work sincerely at the heart of the EU, with high standards in terms of governance."
Last month, Politico revealed that EU budgetary officials had requested a 27.5% budget increase for the Council President's office from 2023 to 2024, with travel costs alone climbing to €1.985 million – approximately four times greater than the travel expenses of Michel's predecessors, Herman Van Rompuy (2010-2014) and Donald Tusk (2014-2019).
Criticism of Michel was compounded over the weekend when Le Monde published a report highlighting Michel's growing use of private jets: from the start of his term as Council President in 2019 to December 2022 Michel travelled by private plane on 72 out of a total of 112 foreign missions. Notably, these included trips to the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El Sheikh last November and to the COP26 summit in Glasgow in 2021.
'More missions = more expenses'
Michel repeatedly defended his travel budget's increase by pointing out global geopolitical challenges, including Russia's war in Ukraine and growing tensions between China and the West over the status of Taiwan. He insisted that it has been necessary for him to travel much more "given the international context".
The Council President stressed what he sees as the vital need to combat anti-West narratives spread by Russia: "Should we let Mr Lavrov and Mr Wagner's militias wander around the African continent to carry their narrative, without being there to defend the interests of the EU?"
For Michel, there is no choice but to be more active on the international stage, which will necessarily entail more travelling to engage with world leaders and set the record straight on EU sanctions, which Russia has sought to portray as responsible for creating a famine in Africa.
Going into a defensive overdrive, Michel went so far as to suggest that his expenses have actually decreased in real terms relative to previous years. He said that despite his proposed budget increase of 30% relative to 2023, this really constitutes a mere 12% increase: "Given that inflation in the travel sector is currently 13% per year, the forecast made by the Council for 2024 actually constitutes a reduction in real terms."
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Michel concluded the interview by suggesting that criticism of his excessive expenses and international travel will not "deter him from attempting to do what is best for Europe". He called attention to what he sees as a formidable work record: "I have had 700 meetings in Brussels since the beginning of the mandate, much more than my predecessors. It shows that I work a lot."
"I am absolutely focused, 1,000%, on my mandate, on my responsibility. The times are serious and therefore there is no space for distraction... I will defend the interests and values of the European Union because that is what is expected of me."