The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has used the first two months of his mandate to make clear his intention to lead the EU’s international agenda. The new impetus, manifested last week with a tour of the hot spots of the European neighborhood, leaves Josep Borrell, a high representative of Foreign Policy, in a delicate situation, a position theoretically thought to unify the activity of European diplomacy. The Michel and Borrell departments claim to work in a coordinated way. But the dispute for prominence on the international scene is evident.
At the moment, this fight seems to be on the side of the President of the European Council. “In Brussels there are only two telephones that non-EU leaders can call: Michel’s and that of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen”, point out sources from the European Council, referring to the historical Kissinger’s complaint that in his time as US Secretary of State he never knew who to turn to in Europe to tackle a global crisis.
Borrell’s current position was created in 2009 precisely to respond, among other things, to Kissinger’s demand. For the past 10 years, Brussels has theoretically provided a phone that Washington or other capitals could call when they needed to know the EU’s position.
But the replacement in the community dome at the end of last year has upset that design. Both Von der Leyen and Michel strive to relegate the high representative to a subordinate role with a significant decline in leadership and role.
And the imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the EU (scheduled for the next day 31) has led Berlin and Paris to create an agreement with London to maintain a leadership on European security policy and international relations outside the provisions of the community framework.
The combination of both factors can weaken the figure of the high representative, a position whose previous occupants (Catherine Ashton, from 2009 to 2014, and Federica Mogherini, until 2019) had already verified the difficulty of leading community diplomacy that, to a large extent, It is exercised from the capitals.
Sources close to Michel deny any conflict of powers with Borrell. “The two speak daily and coordinate their positions,” say those sources. But they also add that “for a few years now, the EU’s foreign policy has come to be assumed by the prime ministers and it is logical that in this context the President of the Council assumes his responsibility.”
Michel’s team wants to exploit a scheme in which Borrell acts as the equivalent of a national foreign minister and only relates to his counterparts of that rank. The highest level appointments will always be reserved, according to that model, for Michel or, failing that, for Von der Leyen.
The President of the Commission seems to be comfortable with this formula. And in just eight weeks in office, he has already shown that he will reserve the great international appointments, but that he will leave international politics largely in the hands of the States, whose visible head in Brussels is Michel.
“The European Union is made up of States and it is in the Council where the States have to decide on issues such as missions [en el exterior]Von der Leyen ignored last Friday in Zagreb when asked about the future of Sophia, the great military operation launched by the EU in the Mediterranean to combat irregular migration.
Operation Sophia has been extended until March of this year, but was rendered useless and without troops after Matteo Salvini’s arrival at the Italian Ministry of the Interior. Mogherini endeavored to maintain it, albeit in a testimonial way so that he could reactivate it later.
Von der Leyen has focused the priorities of his mandate (until 2024) in areas such as the environmental agenda (with the so-called Green Pact) and the digital market. In Juncker’s organizational chart, the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission occupied a prominent place, below only the first vice-presidency. The new president of the Commission has appointed three executive vice presidents who are above the vice president of Foreign Affairs.
In the face of Von der Leyen’s apparent disinterest in the foreign agenda, Michel has shown an international hyperactivity in recent weeks, especially as a result of the assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by the United States and the escalation of the civil war in Libya.
“The EU’s priorities for the coming months are the Green Pact, the digital agenda and the negotiation of new budgets, but we cannot lower our guard abroad and encounter an external crisis that causes an internal political crisis as occurred with Syria ”, sources close to Michel justify the active international agenda of the President of the Council.
Michel was the first community leader to react after Soleimani’s death to ask for a stop to the escalation of tension. And last week he traveled to Istanbul and Cairo to try to defuse the Libyan crisis in separate meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and with Egyptian Abdelfatá al Sisi.
“The President of the Council intends to fully fulfill the mandate given him by the EU Treaty,” they point out in his team. Article 15 of that Treaty confers on it “the external representation of the Union in matters of common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative.” The previous presidents, Herman van Rompuy and Donald Tusk, spent less time on this chapter (perhaps due to the very serious internal crises they faced), which left more space for Ashton or Mogherini.
In the case of Borrell, it seems that the high representative will have to live with a much more visible president of the Council. Sources close to Spanish downplay Michel’s omnipresence. And they even consider that “it can be an added value for the EU’s foreign policy, as long as there is coordination. And coordination exists. ”
Community sources recall that Michel’s international work “is nourished by the information” generated by the European External Action Service, the department of more than 4,000 officials led by Borrell. “The original source is the same so the unity of action is guaranteed,” say those sources.
The international prominence of the current President of the European Council guarantees Paris privileged access to control of Brussels’ diplomatic agenda. Charles Michel, former Prime Minister of Belgium, and Emmanuel Macron have a close relationship that they cultivate more if possible since the Belgian has begun to preside over the Council and the European summits.
Michel’s dazzling tour of Istanbul and Cairo to try to put out the Libyan fire came only after he spoke on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday and had a working lunch with Macron on the Elysée that same day. .
This Monday, Michel and Macron also had a working dinner scheduled, in line with the meeting with the Sahel countries organized in Pau by the French president. And sources of the Council presidency indicate that the first extraordinary international summit that Michel prepares (for the month of March) would also be linked to the Sahel, an area of priority interest for France.
The closeness of Michel and Macron responds both to a generational affinity (around 40 years old) and to a political identification, both being prominent representatives of the European liberal family. Michel’s promotion to the European presidency was due in large part thanks to the good result of the Macron group in the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019.
The Brussels-Paris axis, however, can raise suspicions in other capitals, especially when dealing with issues in which other capitals have other interests. This is the case in Libya, where Italy is at odds with France.
Michel’s activism also raises questions from the point of view of effectiveness. The multiplication of European voices can increase the cacophony at a time when Trump, Putin or Erdogan speak emphatically. Community sources point out, however, that Michel’s intervention has been positive. And they attribute in part to Europe having avoided an escalation of tension in Iran and that Turkey and Russia have pushed for a ceasefire in Libya.