Who is Charles Michel, the next President of the European Council?

, by Timothée Houzel

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Who is Charles Michel, the next President of the European Council?

On 2 July, as a part of the overall agreement on the ‘EU top jobs’, the Belgian Charles Michel was selected to hold the post of President of the European Council as the successor of the Polish Donald Tusk. Timothée Houzel sums up the career of the outgoing Belgian Prime Minister, and the main issues he will have to face during his presidency.

Lightning-speed career in national politics for the skilled coalition builder

Son of a former foreign minister and European Commissioner, Charles Michel got engaged in his father’s party Mouvement Réformateur (MR) at age 16. After being elected a provincial councillor at age 18, he entered the Chamber of Representatives at age 23 as the youngest member of the house. At 24, he was appointed as interior minister in the Wallonian government, and in 2007 he became Minister of Development Cooperation in the Belgian federal government.

After multiple electoral failures by his predecessor Didier Reynders, he assumed the presidency of the Mouvement Réformateur party in 2011 and dethroned the socialist majority in Wallonia in 2012. In 2014, he became the youngest Prime Minister in Belgian history at age 38, and the second liberal Wallonian to lead the country. 139 days after the federal elections, he managed to form a government based on a coalition agreement including the Flemish nationalist N-VA party, dubbed “kamikaze coalition”. Even if few predicted that the coalition would last, it held together for more than four years, collapsing in December 2018 because of discord concerning the UN Global Compact for Migration.

Michel’s nomination poses the question of who will succeed him as the head of government. The May 2019 legislative elections that were held on the same day as the European elections saw the Belgian political landscape fragment, making it impossible for any new majority to emerge in the short term.

European Council President: Job that requires a keen eye for compromise

As per Article 15 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the President of the European Council is tasked with chairing and facilitating the work of the body composed of the heads of state and government of the member states. The President also represents the EU externally “at his level and in that capacity”, but without prejudice to the role of High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy. (Translator’s note: The Spaniard Josep Borrell has been nominated for the post of High Representative.)

The president’s role remained unofficial between 1975 and 2009, and was taken by the leader of the member state who held the EU Council presidency. However, the Treaty of Lisbon that entered into force in 2009 introduced a permanent post in order to replace the rotating presidency. Today, the President is chosen by the European Council by qualified majority for a term of two years and a half that can be renewed once. As such, the President is no longer a “first among equals” but truly works to build compromises between the national leaders.

Following the Belgian Herman van Rompuy who was the European Council President in 2009–2014, and the Polish Donald Tusk, Charles Michel will immediately dive into the big issues touching the heart of the EU. These include Brexit, the next EU budget for 2021–2027, and the fight against climate change. He will certainly have to search for impossible compromises, as the previous negotiations have shown the extent of north-south and east-west fractures – with the Hanseatic league refusing any common European budget, and the Visegrád group refusing any European solidarity in receiving asylum seekers.

A liberal close to Emmanuel Macron

As Prime Minister, Charles Michel has led liberal policies, such as the privatisation of public services, cuts on public expenditure, pension reform and the deregulation of the labour market.

A pro-European liberal, he is close to the French President Emmanuel Macron who, together with the Dutch premier Mark Rutte and the Luxembourgish leader Xavier Bettel, represents a new generation convinced that the big contemporary issues can only be effectively dealt with at the European level. Charles Michel’s nomination illustrates the growing influence of liberals who were strengthened by this year’s European elections where they went from 68 to 108 seats in the European Parliament. The liberals question the tandem between the centre-right and the social democrats in the European institutions, where they had no posts in the previous few terms.

To relaunch the European project, the French President also counts on Charles Michel to develop new formats of cooperation within the EU, in the vein of a ‘multi-speed Europe’ that would give willing member states the opportunity to deepen their cooperation.

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