By Miguel Suarez
In an unexpected turn of events, Charles Michel, the former Belgian prime minister and current president of the European Council, announced his intention to run as the head of his party - the Belgian Reformist Movement - for the upcoming European Parliament elections taking place in June 2024. Despite his position as president of the EU Council, he has stated that he will take his chair as MEP if elected, leaving a vacancy in the presidency of this key European Organism.
The decision has been widely criticized by politicians, experts and journalists, not because of the sole fact of leaving his position vacant, but because of the timing of the decision (Hanley, 2024). This accelerated timeline choice has become quite controversial since the European Parliament elections, as mentioned, are set to take place in June, leaving the members of the Council with over five months to choose a successor if they don’t want to face an interim presidency.
Generally, this should not be an issue, but the conditions of this interim presidency are concerning most of the European leaders. According to the rules of the European Union, if there is an absence on the presidency of the European Council the responsibility corresponds to the prime minister of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, paradoxically, it is Belgium right now. The problem relies in that in July 2024 Belgium’s turn will be over, and the next State to hold this position will be Hungary, thus, if a new permanent president is not elected, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, will be the new acting president of the European Council.
Why is this a problem?
Orbán has been one of the most controversial figures of European politics since his arrival to duty in Hungary in 2010. During his mandates, many voices have arised criticizing the authoritarian derive of his government, the extreme conservatism of his policies, his unwavering defense of Christian values and his relations with non-aligned countries like Russia or China.
Some of his most highly debated measures in Hungary are for example, the prohibition of talking to a minor about homosexuality or any LGTBIQ+ matter and their restriction to content related to these topics. Other scandals, like spying on citizens and political opponents through the famous Pegasus Program or the closing of the borders to immigrants and prohibition of organizations that helped them, have caused a barrage of criticism, and that organizations such as Freedom House no longer consider Hungary to be a free and democratic country, an unprecedented development in the European Union. (INFOBAE, 2022)
Due to this and other internal issues, Orbán’s party has shown to be a force of instability in the European institutions, for example, they broke away from the conservative group in which it was framed in the European Parliament, initiating a rapprochement towards the far-right group. In the same way, he maintains open disputes with the courts of justice of the Union, with the rest of the European governments and with the European Commission, which denies him financing due to alleged continuous violations to the rule of law and to the fundamental values of the EU.
It is important to note that Orbán was already head of government the last time Hungary held the rotating presidency of the European Council without major consequences. However, at present, due to his constant disputes with the EU and taking into account his position towards Russia in the context of the Ukrainian war, completely contrary to that of NATO, European leaders are particularly alarmed by the possibility that he will wield even more power as acting president of the EU's most powerful decision-making body.
What are the functions of the president and why is it dangerous for Orbán to hold them?
According to Article 15 of the Treaty on European Union, the functions of the President of the European Council include: chairing meetings of the European Council and advancing its work; ensuring the preparation of meetings of the European Council and the continuity of its work, in cooperation with the President of the Commission and on the basis of the work of the General Affairs Council; helping to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council; and presenting a
report to the European Parliament after each meeting of the European Council. In addition, the President represents the EU in other foreign policy bodies and at international summits. (European Council, 2024)
Regarding all these duties, and his career as a politician in Europe, in general terms Orbán does not seem as the perfect choice for a figure which has to vail for cohesion, consensus, agreement and keep a fluent and cordial relation with the head of the European Commission. Also he doesn’t appear to be the best candidate in terms of representation of the EU values, since he doesn’t agree with many of them. It is not that he is going to become the most powerful person in the EU and start making decisions and implementing policies based on his interests, but it certainly does not seem like he is going to make things easy for relations within the Union to be fluid and cordial, and he certainly does not seem to be the ideal profile to represent the majority of member countries and their citizens.
Why did Michel take this decision?
There is a lot of speculation around the reasons that took the current president Charles Michel to run in the European Elections and leave the 27 European Leaders in this position of pressure, also about why he didn't announce his intentions before.
As for the first question, the main character himself has given some explanations, among which he said his intention was to support European’s democratic legitimacy that has been constantly criticized (Suanzes, 2024). However, critics were quick to call his decision irresponsible and selfish.
What one senses from Michel’s move is that he had no confidence in being re-elected as president of the European Council, so he decided to stand for election as an MEP as a way to secure a stable and responsible position within the EU framework. According to his own statement he is still interested in pursuing his plans to strengthen the Union's position on the international scene and to achieve a stronger and more powerful Europe (Henley, 2024).
There are not many media outlets that echo the news and that glimpse behind this movement an interest of Michel in becoming president of the European Parliament, the representative for his political group in the European Commission or even the EU foreign policy chief (Barigazzi et al., 2024). That would have been a move to ensure a position of responsibility and decision-making capacity for him at least for the next five years, taking into account that his current term was supposed to end in December of this year. Also Belgian media take into account the unstable position of the party in the national politics field which could also have had an influence in Michel’s decision. (Carolan, 2024) Despite all this, if there is any other hidden cause or games of power that justifies the timing of this announcement it has not been brought to light yet, but his presidency has been widely perceived as an ego competition with Ursula Von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission and probably the most visible face of the European Union in the last few years. Regarding this background it is possible that there is something behind the scenes that has not been, and probably will never be, known by the public opinion.
What will happen now?
In general terms the election of Michel as MEP seems like a very feasible outcome, since he will be the head of the RM list and this party has historically reached at least 2 seats in the European Parliament in every election since 1979, and of course because of his mediatic well-known profile. Therefore, European leaders now face a very difficult ballot; they must agree before or during the next summit in June, just before Hungary takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council, if and how they want to prevent Orbán from taking over as acting president. It is worth recalling again the frozen funds for the post-Covid recovery that Hungary has not yet received and his departure from the chamber during the vote on the start of negotiations for the accession of Ukraine and Moldova to the Union as examples of the tensions that this process will probably bring to the Council.
Another surprising fact about this decision is that now the pressure of organizing the voting and reaching of a satisfactory agreement in a record time relies on Michel’s compatriots, since as mentioned in the introduction, Belgium has just started its
mandate of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU so it will be their job to facilitate the election of a new president. Was this a political move? It is hard to know. According to Michel, there is plenty of time to choose a successor but regarding previous processes they usually take much more than 5 months, since the president has to contempt every interest both ideologically and in terms of personal profile. (Hanley, 2024)
In this unfolding drama of EU leadership, Michel's decision to run as an MEP has set off a chain reaction of concerns, placing the Union at a crossroads. The imminent possibility of Orbán stepping into a role with far-reaching implications underscores the fragility of EU governance. As we witness this political chess game, questions emerge about the rules governing the appointment of an acting president. I ask myself, if the rule that prevents someone from holding two positions in the European Institutions at the same time is based on the avoidance of a conflict of interest, how can it be that there is no rule (questioning an unfit) to avoid the prime minister of a member state to hold such an influential position while still in office? Isn’t there a conflict of interests too? Of course, the answer to that question is not as simple as a “yes” or “no”, there is a no-ending amount of legal, ethical, philosophical and formal arguments that could be brought for the debate, nevertheless I firmly consider it is a matter that worths at least some thought.
Henley, J. (2024, January 7). Michel sparks scramble to stop Orbán taking control of European Council. The guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/07/michel-sparks-race-to-stop-Orbán-b ecoming-european-council-president
Suanzes, P. R. (2024, January 7). Charles Michel sacude el tablero europeo anunciando que se presentará a las elecciones europeas antes de acabar su mandato en el Consejo. El Mundo. https://www.elmundo.es/internacional/2024/01/07/659ad86fe9cf4a29228b456d.html
Barigazzi, J., Vinocur, N., Wax, E., Caulcutt, C., Moens, B., & Dallison, P. (2024, January 9). What Charles Michel’s decision to run for EU election means for him and Europe. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/charles-michel-european-election-2024-ursula-von-der- leyen/
Carolan, C. (2024, January 8). 'Unbelievable': Charles Michel criticised for putting own career above EU. The Brussels Times. https://www.brusselstimes.com/politics/866818/unbelievable-charles-michel-criticised -for-putting-own-career-above-eu
INFOBAE. (2022, April 1). La Hungría de Orbán en cuatro polémicas. infobae. https://www.infobae.com/america/agencias/2022/04/01/la-hungria-de-Orbán-en-cuatr o-polemicas/
European Council (2024) The President’s role. Consilium Europe. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/european-council/president/role/