European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission boss Ursula Von der Leyen are waging an absurd trench war that is damaging the European Union.
Often small, spiky comments betray something wrong. Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, can do that quite well, taunting someone. The chief of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, recently experienced this when the joint meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to be organized.
Often small, spiky comments betray something wrong. Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, can do that quite well, taunting someone. The chief of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, recently experienced this when the joint meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to be organized. The EU Commission is leading the Brexit talks, so it was obvious that von der Leyen would send the invitations to the video conference. However, that did not prevent Charles Michel from claiming the role of director. Initially, he had his spokesperson announce the appointment on Twitter and claimed the successful organization for himself. Nevertheless, von der Leyens officials had already planned practically everything. Apparently Michel’s people later also sent the registration details for the video conference. After an intervention from committee headquarters, the invitation was sent again – this time by the hostess. That toddlerish bickering around the videoconference with Johnson is just the youngest affair between two politicians who – with Europe in its biggest crisis ever – should actually act as allies. Ideally, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission should form a strong team. Von der Leyen and its thirty thousand employees have the know-how, Michel has the ear of the heads of state and government. They can also complement each other well. She has a fast connection to the Chancellery in Berlin, as a former Belgian Prime Minister, he has a special relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron. Add biographical parallels. Von der Leyen and Michel have both been on the job for a good six months now, both of which ultimately owe their post to Macron. The two were born and raised in a political environment: Ursula von der Leyen’s father was Prime Minister of Niedersachsen, Michel’s father was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Both fathers also worked in the European Commission. Failure But things are not going so harmoniously between the two top politicians in Brussels. In the meantime, the committee experiences ‘the PEC’, as Michel is called (‘President of the European Council’), as a disturbing element. Michel, for his part, sees with suspicion how von der Leyen claims large parts of the Brussels scene, ranging from foreign to economic policy. Even when they are negotiating the EU’s reconstruction, the central project with which the commission wants to deal with the economic consequences of the corona crisis, they get in each other’s way. Before von der Leyen presented her plan on May 27, she had made several calls to all heads of state and government. In fact, that’s Michel’s job. She hardly informed Michel and her commissioners about the details of her reconstruction plan. He has no choice but to praise her plans, while she is also strict on his fingers. Michel does indeed make an effort to have the project carried out successfully. EU members cannot accept a failure now that they have suffered from the crisis. Macron and Merkel support the principles of the von von Leyen plan and have already proposed similar ideas. In Berlin, people are rather skeptical about Michel since he made a first attempt in February to get the heads of state and government to approve the European multi-year budget. The Federal Government was not at all pleased that Michel dismantled the rule of law mechanism, which had been formulated for the first time, before the negotiations were properly started. Germany wants to ensure that the Commission can withhold EU money in the future for countries such as Hungary or Poland that do not adhere to the principles of the rule of law. Michel, however, set the hurdles for such a decision so high that the proposal was barely feasible. Michel and von der Leyen had a difficult start in their office. Von der Leyen barely got enough votes and did not look good at the beginning of the corona crisis. And Michel, in turn, lacks a clear line. When Von der Leyen flies to the African Union, Michel does that too. Then he gets in the way of the European chief diplomat Josep Borrell in Ankara. His head of cabinet recently resigned, a central employee whose loyalty cannot be doubted: François Roux had already worked for Michel’s father. Erdogan Both politicians hope to gain strategic advantage when they leave the counterparty in the dark about their plans. That is clearly evident in the area where you have to coordinate the votes – in foreign policy. In early March, Michel and von der Leyen flew to Orestiada, a small town on the Greek-Turkish border. A few days earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had declared that the border to the EU was open to refugees. With the visit, Michel wanted to show that the EU is not blackmailed. Von der Leyen flew right away. It was only towards the end of the trip, meanwhile they were at the next stop in Bulgaria, that the committee boss was told that Michel had scheduled a much more important appointment the next day: a visit to Erdogan. Michel hadn’t told von der Leyen about it, even though they were on the same charter flight for hours that day. Apparently he was afraid that his colleague would steal the show in Ankara. © Der Spiegel, translation: Wim Vermeylen