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The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has shaken up the European chessboard this weekend by announcing that he will stand as a candidate for his party, the Liberals of the MR, in the European elections in June. It is normal for politicians to be candidates, and even more so in a year like 2024 that will be full of calls all over the planet, and especially in Belgium. But the circumstances mean that Michel's decision, the first time something like this has happened since the position was created, has generated some doubts and concerns about the possibility that Viktor Orban will end up being the president 'pro tempore' of the European Council during the second half of the year.

Michel was elected in the summer of 2019, while he was interim prime minister of Belgium, at a very long and complex summit that lasted four days for the election of the heads of the European Council, the Commission (Ursula von der Leyen), the European Parliament (David Sassoli), the ECB (Christine Lagarde) and the High Representative for Foreign Policy (Josep Borrell). He arrived at the European Council in December of that year, leaving the Belgian executive to opt for a better and secure post for at least two and a half years, but usually up to five, and handing over the baton to one of his ministers. Now he can't do the same, but deadlines are getting tricky.

He was expected to be there until December, but his unexpected decision was announced late on Saturday night in the Belgian press and he explained it this Sunday to a group of European journalists, in the face of the numerous criticisms that were immediately generated. His idea is to run for office while in office. Faced with doubts about whether it is possible to be an honest broker, an impartial mediator as his job requires, Michel defends himself by assuring that any prime minister seeking re-election has to be a leader and a candidate simultaneously. "It's what I did in the past, what all my colleagues do. There's an integrity, an intellectual honesty, implicit," he explains.

The Risk of Deadlines

The risk is in the timing. The elections will be held between June 6 and 9. Immediately, those elected will collect their minutes, carry out a series of formalities and be ready for the first session of Parliament, which is expected to be in mid-July. That was the case in 2019. By then, Michel hopes to have a successor appointed by the 27. "I have taken the decision to support European legitimacy. We are often criticised for the EU's lack of democratic legitimacy. After four years in a position where decisions are made at the highest level, it's important to show that we stand up. I will do everything I can to defend my vision, my ideas for the future of the EU. We have to reform it, make it more sovereign, more powerful, and from Parliament it will be able to do so with more passion," he says.

"The first session of Parliament will be mid-July; it is thus easier for the European Council to decide and anticipate the possibility of my successor arriving in time. After the European elections, the institutions will start a new cycle," he says. The problem is that if the leaders of the 27 could not agree at the end of June, at the last ordinary summit before the summer break, there would be trouble. Michel cannot be a Member of Parliament and President of the European Council. If you take the minutes, you must say goodbye. And if the leaders of the 27 need more time and leave for July, as happened in 2019, or beyond, there will be a vacuum. And according to current rules, it would be Viktor Oban who would take the baton.

The setting is surreal. Orban is the dean right now, but it would not be because he has been around longer than anyone else, but because his country takes over the rotating presidency of the Union on 1 July, ironically after Belgium. If by then there is no successor, who would no longer have six months to prepare for change, as has happened the last two times, but only a few days, Orban would preside over the summits. It has been the leader who has boycotted them, hindered them, who has twice vetoed the conclusions in recent months. The one that prevented a decision to update the EU budget and a mechanism for financial support to Ukraine at the last summit in 2023. And that he left the room, in an unusual gesture, so that the others would approve in his absence the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.

Michel believes that won't happen, but he washes his hands and tells his colleagues that they have more than enough time to prepare and prevent that from happening. "Yesterday I personally informed the 27 leaders of my plans. Most of them reacted positively, others haven't because there has been too little time," he explains.

"I can't anticipate the EUCO's decision in June. If they don't want to risk Orban being in charge, it's very easy; Let them make the decision, so there will be no surprises, there are seven months for that. In addition, the rule by which Orban would assume responsibility as the temporary president of the Council of the EU, can be changed by a simple majority before it arrives. The European Parliament did something similar many years ago to prevent Le Pen from being in front of an important meeting. Between now and June there is plenty of time to decide on my succession and the presidency of the Commission and the High Representative," he adds.

Curiously, there is an unincluded mention in his sentence: the presidency of the European Parliament, which is now held by the conservative Maltese Roberta Metsola. It's no coincidence, as Michel doesn't rule out being able to end up there himself. It would also be an unprecedented move and one that the European Parliament would take very badly. Michel speaks of democratic legitimacy, but if someone fresh from the European Council and appointed directly by the leaders were to end up at the head of the house, the provocation would be absolute. Parliament has been fighting for a long time to have more weight, so that the presidency of the Commission must be directly and irremediably linked to the outcome of the European elections, and that only the leader of each European political family, appointed before them, can be appointed. But this has been consistently rejected by the Council, which has no intention of relinquishing the powers conferred on it by the Treaties.


"I don't want to anticipate anything, step by step. The campaign has not started, it will be seen in the coming weeks. I'm fully committed. There is no need to make plans now. I want to be elected in June and then we'll see... In politics there are surprises, circumstances, opportunities, sometimes, we'll see what happens. I'm very relaxed. I started 20 years ago in Belgium, I've been to a lot of elections, there are always surprises. We'll see what happens. And there are political negotiations to form stable majorities," he responds cryptically to questions from this newspaper about whether he aspires to something more than being a rank-and-file MEP. Standing in the way is the leadership of the liberal forces (Renew), now in the hands of an MP of Emmanuel Macron. Or the Presidency itself, as far-fetched as it may seem.

The stable majorities of which he speaks also allude to a distribution of positions that seems complicated. It is not only the European Council, the Commission, the High Representative or the presidency of the European Parliament, but also the general secretariat of NATO, which will be decided at a summit later this summer. There is a need for gender, geographical, population and political balances. Von der Leyen is the top favourite at the head of the Commission, but the rest is still open. Michel is the first to make a move, starting to delimit the board.

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