The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, has taken advantage of the first two months of his term to make clear his intention to lead the international agenda of the EU. The new impetus, manifested last week with a tour of the hot spots of the European neighborhood, leaves Josep Borrell, High Representative of Foreign Policy, in a delicate position, a position theoretically designed to unify the activity of European diplomacy. The departments of Michel and Borrell claim to work in a coordinated manner. But the dispute over the prominence in the international scene is evident.
At the moment, this struggle seems to be on the side of the president of the European Council. "In Brussels there are only two phones that leaders from outside the EU can call: Michel's and that of the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen," say sources from the European Council, alluding to the historical Kissinger's complaint that in his time as US Secretary of State he never knew who to go to in Europe to address 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 arranged a telephone that Washington or other capitals could call when they needed to know the position of the EU.
But the relay in the community dome at the end of last year has upset that design. Both Von der Leyen and Michel struggle to relegate the High Representative to a subordinate role with a significant decline in leadership and leadership.
And the imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the EU (scheduled for next day 31) has led Berlin and Paris to foster an entente 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 proven the difficulty of leading a community diplomacy that, to a large extent, It is exercised from the capitals.
Sources close to Michel deny any conflict of competence with Borrell. "The two talk daily and coordinate their positions," said those sources. But they also add that "for a few years, the EU's foreign policy has become assumed by the prime ministers and it is logical that in that context the president of the Council will assume his responsibility."
Michel's team wishes to exploit a scheme in which Borrell acts as an equivalent to a national foreign minister and only relates to his counterparts in that range. 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 comfortable with that formula. And in just eight weeks of his mandate he has already shown that the great international events will be reserved, 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 States have to decide on issues such as missions (abroad),” Von der Leyen disregarded last Friday in Zagreb when asked about Sophia's future, the large military operation launched by the EU in the Mediterranean to combat irregular migration.
Operation Sophia is extended until March of this year, but was rendered useless and ineffective after Matteo Salvini's arrival at the Italian Ministry of Interior. Mogherini struggled to maintain it, even if it was a testimonial way to 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 the Juncker organizational chart, the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission occupied a pre-eminent place, below only the first vice-presidency. The new president of the Commission has appointed three executive vice presidents who are above the Vice Presidency of Foreign Affairs.
Faced with this apparent disinterest of Von der Leyen on the foreign agenda, Michel has shown international hyperactivity in recent weeks, especially following the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the United States and the escalation of the civil war in Libya.
“The priorities of the EU for the coming months are the Green Pact, the digital agenda and the negotiation of the new budgets, but we cannot lower our guard abroad and encounter an external crisis that causes an internal political crisis as happened 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 call for a brake on the escalation of tension. And last week he traveled to Istanbul and Cairo to try to defuse the Libyan crisis in meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and with the Egyptian, Abdelfatá al Sisi.
"The president of the Council intends to fully comply with the mandate granted by the EU Treaty," they say on his team. Article 15 of that Treaty confers on it “the external representation of the Union in matters of common foreign policy and security, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative”. The previous presidents, Herman van Rompuy and Donald Tusk, devoted less time to that chapter (perhaps because of the very serious internal crises they faced), which left more space for Ashton or Mogherini.
In Borrell's case, it seems that the High Representative will have to live with a much more visible president of the Council. Sources close to Spanish downplay the omnipresence of Michel. 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 "draws on 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," said those sources.
The international role of the current president of the European Council guarantees Paris privileged access to control of the Brussels diplomatic agenda. Charles Michel, former Prime Minister of Belgium, and Emmanuel Macron maintain a close relationship that they cultivate even more since the Belgian has begun to preside over the Council and European summits.
Michel's brilliant tour of Istanbul and Cairo to try to put out the Libyan fire only came after Friday talking on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that same day held a working lunch with Macron on the Elysium .
This Monday, Michel and Macron also had a work dinner scheduled, in line with the meeting with the Sahel countries organized in Pau by the French president. And sources from the presidency of the Council point out 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 proximity of Michel and Macron responds both to a generational affinity (around 40 years) and a political identification, both being prominent representatives of the European liberal family. Michel's rise to the European presidency was largely due to the good result of the Macron group in the European Parliament elections in May 2019.
The Brussels-Paris axis, however, can raise suspicions in other capitals, especially when addressing issues in which other capitals have other interests. This is the case in Libya, where Italy is confronted 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 loudly. Community sources indicate, however, that Michel's intervention has been positive. And they partly attribute Europe to having avoided an escalation of tension in Iran and that Turkey and Russia have driven a ceasefire in Libya.
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