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How Charles Michel weathered the ‘sofagate’ storm

Charles Michel, the EU Council president - Credit: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP

JOHN KAMPFNER on Charles Michel, a man whose recent travails reveal much about the shortcomings of the EU’s institutions

How many presidents does it take to run a union? The answer, when it comes to Europe, is three. Plus, a high representative. The problem of duplication is compounded by the fact that each of them sees the others as rivals and each is in the doldrums.

Around a month ago, on these pages I wrote about Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the Commission, and the mayhem that was the early part of the vaccine roll-out.

Much of that has been sorted out over the past few weeks as the inoculation count has gathered pace. This has allowed her to turn her attention to the big global issues, which is where, once again, the institutions have been found wanting.

The recent humiliation of Josep Borrell, the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy for the EU (or foreign minister), in Moscow should have served as a warning. As Borrell was holding a press conference with his wily counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, the Russians were imposing sanctions on European officials. It was a trip he should not have made. It was a trip that was badly choreographed.

Then on April 7 came “#sofagate”, a diplomatic incident this time involving Turkey (another rival cum adversary of the EU) and ending up with one of Europe’s two presidents being part of the defenestration of the other. Von der Leyen was in Ankara that day, together with the president of the EU Council, Charles Michel, for talks with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As the host greeted his two guests, he ushered Michel into one of two stately chairs, interspersed by Turkish and EU flags. There was no such throne for von der Leyen. After some confusion, she was ushered onto a sofa further away, opposite Turkey’s foreign minister.

The moment was captured by the pool cameramen, alongside a clipped “ahem” from von der Leyen, which went viral. Why, it was later demanded, did Michel do nothing? Why did he not insist that she also be given a proper seat, in accordance with protocol?

Back in Brussels, the recriminations flew. Why had the officials arranging the trip not checked in advance? After all, Erdogan has form, having just pulled Turkey out of a legally binding Council of Europe convention on violence against women. The European aides claimed they had not been allowed into the room ahead of time.

Michel expressed regret, after a fashion, insisting that he had not meant it as a slight. He had, he asserted, been caught as off guard and had not wanted to exacerbate already fraught relations with Turkey.

Von der Leyen has refused to let the matter rest and devoted a sizeable chunk of a recent speech to the European parliament to denounce the affair as sexism. “It happened,” she said, “because I am a woman.” With Michel sitting among the MEPs close by, she went on: “Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and tie?”

Michel repeated his apology and pledged to use the affair to press EU countries to make more progress on gender equality issues.

Is Michel any more or less tone deaf to these issues than your average international statesman? Probably not.

“#Sofagate was a test of political nous: what to do in the moment when you realise something is wrong,” says Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels and a former Commission official. “Do you smile and wave, take the chair that is offered? Or do you decide to make a fuss because values are at stake? That split-second decision to take the chair and leave von der Leyen on the sofa exemplifies the preference for muddling through over taking a stand.”

There is also a more visceral explanation: rivalries. Michel is fiercely protective of his turf. Just as von der Leyen is. Just as Borrell is. Just as is the president of the European parliament (I hadn’t got around to mentioning him yet), David Sassoli. They all would like to think that they are the president of Europe.

The difference between Michel and the rest is that he is a former prime minister and they are not. Von der Leyen was Germany’s defence minister. Borrell was a foreign minister in the Spanish government. Sassoli was a journalist.

Michel is the son of a former European Commissioner. The home was steeped in politics. As a young man, Charles delivered his first political speech at the age of 12. He joined the Young Liberals in his hometown of Jodoigne (where his more flamboyant father, Louise, had been mayor since 1984) at 16. Father and son regularly campaigned together, making a point to answer phone calls from anyone, even from unknown numbers, to maximise their interactions with voters.

Young Charles became a local councillor at 18 and the country’s youngest regional minister at 25. Apart from the briefest of stints as a lawyer, he has always had politics in his blood. By the time he was 38 he had made his way effortlessly to prime minister – a position in Belgium that requires continuous compromise and back-room dealing with the various factions, including across the French and Flemish divides. The last time a French-speaking Liberal led the government was in 1937. He is in a minority of Francophone politicians who is fluent in Dutch.

His government managed to hang on four years, a not inconsiderable feat in Belgian politics. When European leaders decided in 2019 to appoint him to succeed Donald Tusk as Council president, the appointment was seen as sensible and uncontroversial.

Michel is only the third holder of the position. The full-time president’s role came into effect in 2009 following the Lisbon Treaty. Prior to that, it was taken by the leader of the member state which held the six-month rotating presidency. The Council of Ministers, by then ever larger, concluded it needed a full-time chair of the board, someone with an ability to corral, coerce and cajole the different countries to agree joint positions.

A number of European grandees are said to have coveted the position, including a certain Tony Blair. His repeated attempts at securing a senior European berth for himself are said to have been rebuffed, particularly by Angela Merkel. And that was during the good old days when the UK still saw itself as at the heart of Europe.

The job description for the role should include the quality: behind-the-scenes fixer. The trouble is former prime ministers like Tusk did not want to stay silent.

Michel is not the shy and retiring sort. Eyebrows were raised when he granted unprecedented access to Council meetings for a television crew to film a documentary about himself. He likes to boast he is an expert in defusing political crises, which he sometimes is. The problem is he also has a flair for instigating them.

When the EU agreed a historic multi-billion recovery package during the first lockdown – an extraordinary success by any account – both he and von der Leyen claimed credit. As did Angela Merkel; as did Emmanuel Macron. When tensions between the EU and the UK were at their highest over the vaccine, Michel accused the UK of imposing an export ban, something that was technically incorrect and deepened the row.

“One of the issues here is that the different institutions spend much of their time briefing against each other,” says Camino Mortera-Martinez of the Centre for European Reform in Brussels. The problems are not helped, she adds, by the suspicion among some member states that Michel is seen as “Macron’s poodle”.

In that, he and von der Leyen might find common cause. She is suspected by some of doing Merkel’s bidding (even though she was actually nominated to the job, to Merkel’s apparent surprise, by Macron). They are both in turns accused of being proxies for others, and of striking out and trying to carve too much of a niche for themselves.

At the height of #Sofagate, a number of MEPs demanded Michel’s resignation. He has weathered that storm. Just like von der Leyen, he has had a bruising last few months. They might conclude from their travails that, instead of one-upman-or-womanship, they might emerge stronger if they arranged the furniture more collegiately.

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