'Unbelievable': Charles Michel criticised for putting own career above EU

'Unbelievable': Charles Michel criticised for putting own career above EU
European Council President Charles Michel delivers a speech during the new year's congress of the French speaking liberal party MR Mouvement Reformateur, in Marcinelle, Sunday 08 January 2023. Credit: Belga / Virginie Lefour

President of the European Council Charles Michel's plan to run as a candidate for the European Parliament in the elections in June has prompted widespread accusations of self-interest and irresponsibility.

Over the weekend, Michel surprised pundits by announcing he would lead the MR list, his political party in Belgium, at the European elections next spring. If successful, Michel would take up his position as an MEP in mid-July, cutting short his current mandate which is supposed to run until 30 November 2024. The announcement has been criticised as a self-serving career move typical of the former Belgian Prime Minister.

As President of the European Council, Michel is responsible for coordinating meetings between Member State leaders. In the absence of such a chairman, direction responsibilities go to the leader of whichever Member State holds the rotating Presidency of the Council. Come July, this will be Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – an undesirable situation for many given Hungary's controversial stance on the war in Ukraine and its clashes with the EU regarding the rule of law.

While legal, Michel's decision exerts enormous pressure on EU leaders, who will have to scramble to replace him as quickly as possible in order to steer Orbán away from the reigns of power.

European Council President Charles Michel and Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib pictured during the national New Year congress of MR. Credit: Belga / Nicolas Maeterlinck

Nevertheless, Michel insists upon the logic underpinning his decision. "That is democracy. If I am elected, I will take the oath. I will exercise my duties as President of the European Council until I am sworn in as a Member of the European Parliament in mid-July," he stated.

Unreserved criticism

Reaction has been scathing in the European camp. "As President of the European Council, Michel has mainly shown contempt for the Parliament for which he is now a candidate. It is cynical and unbelievable," Dutch-turned-Belgian MEP Sophie in't Veld (Renew) stated. "A captain who abandons his ship in the middle of a storm shows that he is not concerned about the fate of Europe. [The European Parliament] is not a temporary resting place for politicians in-between jobs."

On social media, professor of EU Law at the College of Europe Alberto Alemanno said the move "will pave the way for Viktor Orbán, the then president of the rotating presidency of the Council, to take over."

He also drew attention to broader themes of incompetence throughout Michel's stint at the helm of the Council, including messy leadership style, discord with Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen, and an inability to handle Orbán internally.

In the past, Michel has come under fire for extraordinarily high spending on aviation costs and the infamous 'Sofagate' incident, when Michel took the only chair available during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leaving Von der Leyen with nowhere to sit.

Domestic politics at play

In the Belgian camp, however, leader of the Mouvement Reformateur (MR) – the French-speaking liberal party from which Michel emerged – Georges-Louis Bouchez has enthusiastically welcomed his fellow member's move. "We would be crazy as a party not to want the man who was European president as party leader," he told De Standaard.

With Michel becoming MR's top European candidate, questions have been raised regarding the future of the party's other European strongman, EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders.

Didier Reynders and Charles Michel at an MR event in 2019. Credit: Belga / Bruno Fahy

The 65-year-old has reportedly set his sights on another top job, that of secretary-general of the Council of Europe, a non-EU body that advocates for human rights. He already ran for the job in 2019 but lost to Croatian politician Marija Pejčinović Burić.

The Federal Government must appoint Reynders as a candidate. A decision is expected on Wednesday, and Reynders would have to step down from the Commission while campaigning for the post. Michel, meanwhile, states that he will campaign with restraint while tending to his duties as President of the Council.

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