The mystery security guard who stifled EU sanctions on Turkey and Belarus
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in Brussels this week. Aside from rising cases in Europe’s capital, the EU leaders’ summit had to be postponed – owing to Council President Charles Michel coming into contact with an unidentified security guard who had tested positive for the virus.
The President’s team, however, refused to go into details on where the contact between Michel and the guard took place, or specifically when – stoking fears that he could have been at risk when traveling the previous week to Greece, Malta, and Cyprus – where he met heads of state Mitsotakis, Abela and Anastasiades, respectively.
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Despite the concerns, Michel has tested ‘negative,’ but he nonetheless adhered to protocol by going into self-isolation.
Following the announcement from Michel’s press entourage on Tuesday, there was a feverish response from those in the Brussels bubble, a response that acquainted itself with a swathe of questions as to why the postponement of the summit was at all necessary.
Some highlighted the fact that video conferencing tools could easily have been employed, having been used to good effect as part of other EU leaders’ meetings that have taken place during the pandemic.
But then, of course, there are the European Council’s own rules of procedure. The text states that in cases whereby the European Council President is ‘ill’, the responsibility for chairing summits befalls to the head of state of the current EU Presidency, which, at the current time would be Germany’s Merkel.
Point four on Article 2 of the European Council’s rules of procedure notes: “In the event of an impediment because of illness…the President of the European Council shall be replaced, where necessary until the election of his or her successor, by the member of the European Council representing the Member State holding the six-monthly Presidency of the Council.”
The ambiguity in this case, however, emanates from the fact that Michel is not strictly ‘ill.’ The President’s impediment is not a sickness, but it is his incapacity, under an emergency legal regime, to physically be present in the company of others.
And being as it is a wholly unprecedented situation, there is nothing in the European Council’s rules of procedures that provides for a contingency plan in this case.
An EU official told me earlier this week that Michel’s team had consulted the German Presidency, where they discussed three potential scenarios: Merkel chairing the summit, Michel leading the talks from his Brussels residence, and a postponement taking place, allowing for Michel’s physical presence alongside EU leaders, but more importantly, his political advisors and Sherpas.
The Merkel option was dismissed, due to the tact and objectivity that would be required to supervise discussions in the ongoing Greece-Turkey dispute. The two administrations have been at loggerheads over oil and gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Cyprus also crying foul over the fact that Erdogan has stationed military vessels in its waters.
And until the EU takes a tougher stance against Ankara, Cyprus is blocking EU sanctions against Belarus for its flagrant disregard for democracy. Earlier this year, Minsk appeared to stage an illegitimate election in which President Lukashenko tightened his iron grip of power over citizens in the country, thousands of whom have taken to the streets in protest.
For its part, Germany has advocated for a more conciliatory approach to the Greek-Turkish tensions. But with calls from Athens and Nicosia for the EU to adopt a tough position against Erdogan and impose heavy sanctions, there would have been a great degree of political pressure on Merkel to mollify these concerns without discounting Germany’s support for more diplomatic negotiations between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey to take place.
With this in mind, the option of Merkel chairing the European Council summit was shelved by both Michel’s people and the Germans.
Another possibility was for Michel to chair the summit alone from his home – but this was swiftly dismissed because of the logistical difficulty he may have had in consulting his political advisors at the same time as negotiating with EU leaders.
So, in the end, the European Council had no other option but to postpone the summit to next week, and with it, any chance of an EU agreement on further sanctions against both Turkey and Belarus.
Charles Michel’s team announced yesterday that the President took another coronavirus test, to which the result was negative, and accordingly, he is no longer in quarantine.
Meanwhile, for the mystery security guard who had tested positive, the political implications of their contraction of the virus were significant – giving EU member states a precious additional week to chew over the most even-handed way forward in the Greece-Turkey stand-off.
Whether this was just a convenient delay for EU leaders or a legitimate public health concern from the European Council, we will probably never know. But one thing is for certain: The geopolitical gravity embedded into the anonymous security guard’s positive coronavirus test has the potentiality to change the course of relations in the Eastern Mediterranean in the long term.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton 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.