When Tintin Michel wanders around, the European Council suffers

(B2) The failure of the European Summit on Thursday and Friday (20 and 21 February) on the 2021-2027 budgetary framework is mainly due to the divisions between the ’27’. That is for sure. Nobody really wanted a compromise. Neither the stingy ones nor the spenders. But Charles Michel has played a non-negligible role in this mess. His working method, his dispersion, and his lack of style have influenced this outcome

(credit: Conseil of UE)

Tintin travels

Although his appointment has been confirmed since the end of June 2019 and he has been officially in office since the beginning of December, it cannot be said that the new President of the European Council has taken his task to heart immediately. As soon as he was appointed, Tintin Michel went for a walk. Istanbul, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. Addis Ababa, Tirana, and Skopje. Within a few weeks, in January and early February, the number of official trips outside the EU is not negligible.

… chitchats

Each time, this is accompanied by a statement, which is a sequence of rather mundane standard sentences. Even the press statements of the EEAS (the European diplomatic service), although tailored to the line, where each word is weighed against the national diplomacies, tell more things. And if the collective writing is too succinct, the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, with his rather frank language, allows for a much clearer and more direct language, while remaining diplomatically correct.

… and disturbs

Charles Michel doesn’t stop there. He uses his phone. He calls Iranian President Rouhani, to whom he speaks about the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA), the positions in the Middle East, etc. A few days later, just before the Berlin conference, he calls the Russian leader Vladimir Putin to talk, again, about a little bit of everything (Libya, Middle East, Ukraine). And, once again, he lets it be known. For the diplomacy of ‘Tintin Michel’ seems to be more focused on the will to assert oneself, rather than on bringing a ‘real’ added value (1).

The rookie diplomat

There is a bit of gnashing of teeth in the corridors of Europe. Experienced diplomats consider these positions to be at best rather pointless and inconvenient. “It’s the enthusiasm of the beginnings“, we are told. On the Russian side, they laugh, knowing how to make use of the former Belgian Prime Minister’s ‘vanity’. Which wasn’t really possible with his predecessor, Donald Tusk…

Is this the role of the President of the European Council?

If you ask a European diplomat, he or she will tell you: yes, without a shadow of a doubt.

A role set out in the Treaty

Under the Treaty, the President of the European Council has an external representation role (2). However, it should also be pointed out that the Treaty considers this function to be secondary to the role of chairing, moderating and preparing the meetings of the European Council, and above all ensuring the ‘cohesion’ of the Council (3). On the ‘Middle East’ dossier, despite all efforts, two dissenting voices are being heard (see box). A regrettable fact…

In close liaison with the head of European diplomacy

This external relations function must be carried out in close liaison with the High Representative, who is the true head of European diplomacy. It is up to him, on a day-to-day basis, to be present on all the hot issues of the moment, particularly in crisis areas. The authority over the EU delegations, the drafting of diplomatic telegrams, such as chairing meetings of foreign ministers, also pertain to the High Representative. However, here, the liaison with the High Representative does not seem to have been fully effective.

A precious word not to be wasted

This does not mean that the President of the European Council does not have the right to speak and that his or her external speech is not important. But it must not be wasted. It is very valuable in particular for negotiating with strategic partners, for ensuring a presence in the major international fora, such as the G7 and, above all, for maintaining unity on major foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, this role has also gone wrong (see box).

Forgetting priorities

By reversing priorities, the President of the European Council may have made a rookie mistake and overestimated his strengths.

A youthful error

Charles Michel had an important task: to find an agreement on the future budgetary framework of the European Union. A delicate, arduous task that would require his constant presence. The far-flung positions of the Member States on the budget, hardened by time, deserved hard work. The failed summit on Thursday and Friday proved this. This failure was also the result of a certain lack of preparation. Finding a compromise does not happen with a few video conferences or visits to Heads of Government or State.

Adopting the Barnier method

It requires not only seeing each of the protagonists, but also visiting each of the parliaments, meeting with socio-economic groups, understanding the ins and outs of each State, in order to get them to change their position. This is a Benedictine task, but which Michel Barnier has carried out, for example on Brexit (with success). It is far less glorious than going for a stroll in some capitals of the Middle East, the Balkans or Africa. That is true. But that’s the ‘job’.

A youthful mistake

By trying to avoid such work, Charles Michel overestimated his ability of convince others. To believe that a few phone calls, long bilateral discussions and a Belgian-style negotiation to the finish could work was a gamble. Without a serious preparation beforehand, the bet was very risky. Like the young and dynamic executive who is suddenly offered a ‘pass unlimited’, Charles Michel thought he was allowed to project himself under the ‘sunlight’ in order to be able to pretend to solve the world’s problems. It was a bit presumptuous.

A trio of leaders who struggled to find their style

For the current President of the European Council has neither the experience of his compatriot Herman Van Rompuy (who played it discreetly) nor the strength and aura — it must be acknowledged — of the Pole Donald Tusk. Two personalities who preceded him in this job, each with his own style. Charles Michel has yet to take his bearings. He is not alone. The first steps taken by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, are also disappointing. The only one who is doing well today is the ‘old man’, Josep Borrell. It’s a shame to have two weak links out of three ‘pulling at each other’s backs’ instead of walking hand in hand. At a time when, more than ever, Europe needs leadership, it is a mistake.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

A limited role in European unity

Despite what the entourage of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, likes to say, he has (not) forced European unity in the face of the American plan for peace between Israel and Palestine. He was not the main architect of the gathering.

The first press statement issued very quickly after the publication of the US plan, ‘in the name of the 28’ (the United Kingdom was still a member), was a statement of expectation and a reminder of the European position. The European union minimum (read: Le plan de paix US pour le Moyen-Orient accueilli avec prudence par les Européens).

But the apparent unity quickly broke down. And it was not possible to repeat the exercise a few days later. This forced the EU High Representative to issue a press statement in his own name (supported by a majority of the EU) and not on behalf of the Union as he had hoped. The Czech Republic, and in particular Hungary, with a trip to Washington and a thunderous statement by its Foreign Minister, made public their disagreement with the common position (read : Le plan de paix américain pour le Moyen-Orient en infraction du droit international dénonce l’Union européenne).

  1. There seems to be a willingness on Charles’ part to be like his father. Maybe an undigested oedipal complex. Louis Michel, former Foreign Minister of Guy Verhofstadt and former European Commissioner for Development, knew a thing or two about the international relations.
  2. “The President of the European Council shall, at his level and in that capacity, ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.” (article 15.6 TUE, first paragraph)
  3. “The President of the European Council: (a) shall chair it and drive forward its work; (b) shall ensure the preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council in cooperation with the President of the Commission, and on the basis of the work of the General Affairs Council; (c) shall endeavour to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council; (d) shall present a report to the European Parliament after each of the meetings of the European Council.” (article 15.6 TUE, second paragraph)

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).