Behind the Scenes: Council of Picks

Behind the Scenes: Council of Picks
Credit: EU Council


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

Charles Michel’s term as European Council president comes to an end next year. Will the former Belgian prime minister’s time in office leave a lasting legacy on the top job? Maybe five years of Michel could be enough to justify axing the position.

It has not been an easy ride for Charles Michel. In just four years of leading the Council, he has found himself at the centre of more gaffes and mini-scandals than the previous two holders of the post put together.

Whether it was ‘Sofa-gate’, his deteriorating relationship with Commission counterpart Ursula von der Leyen or the ongoing furore about his request for a bigger travel budget, Michel has too often been the one to generate headlines.

He has also caused frustrations within the Council, as some leaders have grown fed up with him spending more time on jaunts abroad – which many think is more within the remit of the EU’s high representative – rather than organising summits and brokering agreements.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

To be fair, this is probably exactly what the government leaders of the more powerful countries would have wanted when they appointed him back in 2019. A Council president that does not create the wrong kind of nuisance or force them to make unpopular decisions.

Michel’s talents – or as some waspish diplomats say, lack of talents – have helped to dampen expectations that the EU will become less about national interests and more about the common good anytime soon.

That has allowed the likes of Emmanuel Macron in particular to run the show when leaders go behind closed doors. Less a council of equals, more a talking shop of power.

Herman Van Rompuy and Donald Tusk, the two men that preceded Michel, were known for their diplomatic nous and getting all their various ducks in line well ahead of summits. The current president has not had the same success.

Behind the Scenes likes to imagine though that a year from now, Michel will be in a dark room in a wingback chair, swilling whisky clutched in a malevolent hand, Wagner blasting in the background, talking in a villainous British accent, as his true persona is revealed.

“We did it, Manu.” The reality, is of course, far less Machiavellian or interesting.

When ‘silly season’ opens and analysts start offering their picks for who will lead the Council next, you should immediately discount any political heavyweights or anyone that does not have much to lose. 

Names like Angela Merkel, Sanna Marin, Mario Draghi and so on may look good on a fantasy politics team sheet, but that is all they are, fantasy. Merkel and Draghi are beholden to nobody and Marin would be too good at the job.

Maybe Michel won’t leave, even though his term has already been renewed once. He told Le Soir this week that “by attacking me, you are attacking the institution”, which is little too “l’etat c’est moi” for your columnist’s tastes. 

That conjures up images of The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort screaming that they are going to have to “send in the National Guard or f***ing SWAT team 'cause I ain't going nowhere”.

Hopefully it won’t come to that.


One hat is enough

 Maybe five years of Michel will prove to be enough to convince leaders that the job should not even exist.

Under the sacred treaties that govern every aspect of how the EU actually does business, there is wiggle-room to change the role of the European Council president. It is only mentioned infrequently and there is admittedly good reason for that.

The Commission and Council presidencies can technically be merged into one position, creating a “double-hatted” president. Jean-Claude Juncker, the previous Commission head-honcho, supported the idea back in 2017.

Juncker said that the positions could be merged so long as it was after a Europe-wide election campaign. Here he was referring to the Spitzenkandidat process, which was ignored by government leaders in 2019 in order to put Ursula von der Leyen into the hot seat.

The idea has merit. If Commission and Council leadership were one and the same, then the frequent journalistic faux pas of “European Union president” would actually be true for once.

Similarly, when foreign leaders ‘want to call Europe’ then they would have a clearer idea of which phone number to ring. Other benefits such as a single budget instead of two separate ones would also likely emerge.

Maybe normal voters would also take more interest in what happens in Brussels if the titles were a little simpler. Perhaps the EU president would not suffer the same snubs that von der Leyen has endured in Türkiye and, more recently, China.

But there are also a number of hurdles that for now might be insurmountable.

For many countries, particularly the smaller nations, the Commission is a check on the Council, which is largely dominated by the whims and interests of the traditional economic powerhouses, France and Germany.

Appointing the same leader to oversee both institutions waters down that safeguard, even if the theoretical president were obliged to swear fealty to the European project or similar.

It would also be hard to imagine the likes of Macron and Olaf Scholz agreeing to a system in which the EU elections determine the legislative and political leadership of the entire union for half a decade.

How and to whom this president would be accountable is also difficult to work out. A Commission can be censured by MEPs, so would the two-hatted leader have to resign if a vote went against their administration?

Despite there being constitutional scope for this job to exist, there would need to be further reform in order for it to be workable in reality. Not a likely prospect right now.

When Juncker made his speech in favour of a merger in 2017, one could have imagined this system taking root, when political headwinds seemed in favour of deep institutional reform. But six years later it is probably unthinkable.

That means that in mid-2024 there will be another carve-up, in which a pliant politician is parachuted in to organise six summits a year, meet foreign dignitaries and not get too involved in what government leaders are talking about.

Charles Michel does have a brother…

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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