N. Peter Kramer’s Weekly Column
‘Rivalry Michel and Von der Leyen undermines EU’s credibility’, Belgian top diplomat Roux wrote recently. He was Michel’s diplomatic assistant for many years and when the Belgian prime minister became President of the European Council he became his ‘chef-de-cabinet’. Roux resigned of this post but is still a witness to what he calls the ‘personal rivalry’ between Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission.
According to Roux, the recent ‘sofa incident’ in Ankara, when Von der Leyen had to sit on a sofa while Michel sat on a chair next to Turkish President Erdogan, was not a protocol issue but a pure political one: the division of power between the President of the European Council and that of the Commission, regarding representation abroad.
In the Lisbon Treaty, foreign policy tasks are not precisely defined. That allows the two presidents to seize every opportunity to compete with each other. ‘In a rational world’, Roux writes, you would expect them to cooperate with Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy. ‘Now their dispute undermines the ambition for an efficient and coherent foreign policy of the EU. It damages the credibility of the EU.’ He continued: ‘One would have expected more discretion in dealing with their differences in opinion’, Roux said, referring to the previous duos Von Rompuy/Barroso and Juncker/Tusk, ‘which succeeded, even in times of crisis’.
After previous leaked incidents illustrating the tension between Michel and Von der Leyen, Politico published a few days ago the latest example. Von der Leyen recently refused to participate in a documentary about the European Summits. For her it looked too much like a publicity stunt for Michel (Do not laugh!)
According to Roux, the two urgently need to reach a deal on their actions abroad to restore the credibility of the EU. ‘But if they are left to themselves, no one knows how long that will take’. That the Belgian diplomat is right, was obvious last Monday in a European Parliament plenary. Von der Leyen furiously attacked Michel without mentioning his name. The Council President calmly reiterated a previous apology.