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When Tintin Michel goes for a walk, the European Council toasts

(B2) The failure of the European summit on Thursday and Friday (February 20 and 21) on the 2021-2027 budgetary framework is mainly due to the divisions of the '27'. For sure. No one really wanted a compromise. Neither the stingy nor the spendthrifts. But Charles Michel has a significant part in this crash. His working method, his dispersion, his lack of style weighed

(credit: Council of the EU)

tintin travel

While his appointment has been recorded since the end of June 2019 and he has been in office officially since the beginning of December, we cannot say that the new President of the European Council took his task to heart straight away. As soon as named, Tintin Michel goes for a walk. Istanbul, Cairo, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Addis Ababa, Tirana and Skopje. In a few weeks, in January and early February, the number of official trips outside the EU is not negligible.

… blah blah

Each time, this is accompanied by a declaration, which strings together rather banal standard sentences. Even the press releases from the EEAS (the European diplomatic service), although carefully crafted, where each word is weighed in the light of national diplomacy, say more. And if the collective writing is too succinct, the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, with his rather frank language, allows for a much clearer and more direct language, while remaining diplomatically correct.

…and disrupts

Charles Michel doesn't stop there. He uses his phone. He calls Iranian President Rouhani to whom he talks about the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA), position in the Middle East, etc. A few days later, just before the Berlin conference, he telephoned Russian leader V. Putin to talk, again, about everything (Libya, Middle East, Ukraine). And, there again, he know. Because the diplomacy of 'Tintin Michel' seems more focused on the desire to show off, than on bringing 'real' added value (1).

The novice diplomat

This makes people cringe a little in European corridors. On the side of experienced diplomats, we consider these positions to be rather useless and untimely at best. " It's the enthusiasm of the beginnings » we hear. On the Russian side, we laugh, knowing how to excite the 'vanity' fiber of the former Belgian Prime Minister. Which was not really possible with his predecessor, Donald Tusk…

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

If you question a European diplomat, he will answer you: yes, without hesitation.

A role set by the Treaty

By the Treaty, the President of the European Council has an external representation role (2). But, it must also be clarified, the treaty considers this function as secondary to the role of chairing, leading, preparing the meetings of the European Council, and above all ensuring " cohesion » of the Council (3). On the 'Middle East' issue, despite all efforts, two dissonant voices are heard (see box). Unfortunately…

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 real head of European diplomacy. It is his day-to-day presence on all the hot issues of the moment, particularly in crisis zones. As well as authority over EU delegations, drafting diplomatic telegrams, and chairing meetings of foreign ministers. However, the liaison with the High Representative does not seem to have been completely 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 external words are not important. But it must not be wasted. It is very valuable in particular for negotiating with strategic partners, for ensuring presence in major international forums, such as the G7 and, above all, for maintaining unity on major foreign policy issues. Unfortunately this role too is missed (see box).

A forgetting of priorities

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

A certain unpreparedness

Charles Michel had an important task: finding an agreement on the future budgetary framework of the European Union. A delicate, arduous task, which requires constant presence. The very remote positions, hardened by time, deserved hard work. The failed summit of Thursday and Friday proved it. This failure is also that of a certain lack of preparation. Finding a compromise cannot be done with a few video conferences or visits to heads of government or state.

Adopt the Barnier method

This requires not only seeing each of the protagonists, but also visiting each of the parliaments, meeting the socio-economic groups, understanding the ins and outs of each State, to be able to make them bend and amend their position. Benedictine work, carried out for example by Michel Barnier on Brexit (successfully). It's much less glorious than going for a stroll in a few capitals of the Middle East, the Balkans, or Africa. It's true. But it's the 'job'.

A youthful mistake

By thinking of avoiding such work, Charles Michel overestimated his strength of conviction. Believing that a few phone calls, long bilateral discussions and that a Belgian-style 'finish' negotiation could work was a gamble. Without serious preparation in advance, the bet was very risky. Like the young dynamic executive who is suddenly offered a 'unlimited pass, Charles Michel believed himself authorized to project himself under the 'sunlight' to be able to claim to solve the world's problems. It was a bit presumptuous.

A directorial trio who struggled to find their style

Because the current President of the European Council has neither the experience of his compatriot Herman Van Rompuy (who played it discreet) nor the strength andhate  – it must be admitted – by the Pole Donald Tusk. Two personalities who preceded him in this position, each with their own style. Charles Michel still has to get his bearings. He is not the only one. The first steps of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, are also disappointing. The only one to do well today is the 'old guy', Josep Borrell. Having two weak links out of three, who are 'pulling each other', instead of walking, hand in hand, is a shame. At a time when, more than ever, Europe needs leadership, this is a mistake.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)


A limited role in European unity

Whatever the entourage of the President of the European Council likes to say, Charles Michel (did) (not) force European unity in the face of the American plan for peace between Israel and Palestine. It was not he who was the main architect of the gathering.

The first press release published very quickly upon publication of the US plan, 'in the name of the 28' (the United Kingdom was still a member), was a press release of expectation and reminder of the European position. The European union minimum (read: The US peace plan for the Middle East welcomed with caution by the Europeans).

But the apparent unity very quickly fractured. And it was not possible to repeat the exercise a few days later. This forced the High Representative of the EU to issue a press release in his own name (supported by a majority of the EU) and not in the name of the Union as hoped. The Czech Republic and, above all, Hungary, with a trip to Washington and a thunderous declaration from its Minister of Foreign Affairs, publicly announced their disagreement with the common position (read: The American peace plan for the Middle East in violation of international law denounces the European Union).


  1. We sense a desire in Charles to equal his father. A poorly digested Oedipus complex perhaps. Louis Michel, former Minister of Foreign Affairs under Guy Verhofstadt, former European Commissioner for Development, knew a lot about it at the international level.
  2. « The President of the European Council ensures, at his level and in his capacity, the external representation of the Union on matters relating to the 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 TEU, 1st paragraph)
  3. « The President of the European Council: a) presides over and leads the work of the European Council; (b) 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) work to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council; (d) present a report to the European Parliament following each of the meetings of the European Council. (Article 15.6 TEU, 2nd paragraph)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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