Following the EU leaders’ decision last July, Charles Michel will take over as President of the European Council on 1 December 2019. The former prime minister of Belgium will be the third person to hold the office since it was created by the Lisbon Treaty exactly one decade ago and the second Belgian to do so following the inaugural holder of the European Council’s presidency, Herman Van Rompuy.
The selection of the then Belgian premier to serve as the first Council president was intended to reassure smaller EU member states that their interests would be protected and not dominated by the union’s bigger countries (Germany, France and the United Kingdom).
Michel’s election follows the same logic: Belgium remains a smaller member state close to France and Germany, while his appointment satisfies the demand to give one of the EU’s top jobs to the liberal political family, whose influence in the Council has been significantly increased since the emergence of Emmanuel Macron. Michel is also a well known figure on the EU stage and can communicate in different languages with heads of state and government.
Persistence and endurance have been the main characteristics of Charles Michel’s career up to this point. The son of Louis Michel, former Belgian foreign minister and European commissioner, young Charles won a seat at the federal parliament at the age of 23, before becoming minister for the regional government of Wallonia at the age of 25 and federal minister for development by the age of 32. He remained in this post for three years until he became leader of the francophone liberal party, the Reformist Movement.
His rise to his country’s highest office in 2014 was somewhat coincidental. Representing the only francophone party in a four-party coalition that also included the Flemish liberals (VLD), the Flemish centre-right party (CD&V) and the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), Michel was offered the premiership when CD&V chose the right to nominate Belgium’s European commissioner instead.
Michel’s first government lasted longer than any of his opponents or supporters had expected and in spite of serious challenges faced along the way, such as the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016 or the regional government of Wallonia threatening to deny its approval of the EU’s trade deal with Canada in October 2016.
Having mastered the Belgian art of compromise through his dealing with the complexities of Belgian politics, Michel seems like a natural choice for the European Council’s presidency. Nevertheless, when there is no consensus on the rules of the game, things can end up in a stalemate even for a seasoned Belgian politician.
Michel’s frail government coalition collapsed at the end of last year, when the conservative N-VA party withdrew its previous consent to the signature of the UN Global Compact for Migration. That may be a bad omen as tensions in the European Council over migration policy or the EU’s long-term budget are not foreseen to be resolved in the immediate future. As it was demonstrated by his compatriot Herman Van Rompuy, a big part of a Council president’s success depends on knowing the limits of his powers.
Michel’s friendly and natural style and his reputation as a serious politician make him well-suited for the demands of his new position. Being a staunch believer in the EU project might seem like a prerequisite for the role, but in the current political environment that could also prove to be a weakness as Michel might struggle to win the trust of those national leaders who are more sceptical of the EU. At the end of the day, even he will have to keep in mind that not everyone can think like a Belgian.