The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, shook the European board this weekend by announcing that he will stand as a candidate for his party, the MR liberals, in the European elections in June. It is normal for politicians to be candidates, and even more so in a year like 2024 when he will be plagued with calls all over the planet, and especially in Belgium. But the circumstances mean that Michel’s decision, the first time something similar has happened since the position was created, has generated some doubts and concerns about the possibility that Viktor Orban ends up being the ‘pro tempore’ president of the European Council during the second half of the course.

Michel was elected in the summer of 2019, while he was interim Prime Minister of Belgium, in a very long and complex summit that lasted four days for the election of those responsible for the European Council, the Commission (Ursula von der Leyen), the European Parliament ( David Sassoli) the ECB (Christine Lagarde) and the High Representative for Foreign Policy (Josep Borrell). He arrived at the European Council in December of that year, leaving the Belgian Executive to opt for a better and secure position for at least two and a half years, but usually up to five, and handing over the baton to one of his ministers. Now he can’t do the same, but the deadlines become complicated.

He was expected to stay until December, but he announced his unexpected decision late Saturday night in the Belgian press and explained it this Sunday to a group of European journalists, in the face of the numerous criticisms that were immediately generated. Her idea is to run for election while she is in office. Given the doubts about whether he can be an honest broker, an impartial mediator as his work requires, Michel defends himself by ensuring that any prime minister seeking re-election has to be a leader and a candidate simultaneously. “It’s what I did in the past, what all my colleagues do. There is an implicit integrity, an intellectual honesty,” he explains.

The risk is in the deadlines. The elections will be between June 6 and 9. Immediately those elected will collect their minutes, carry out a series of procedures and will be ready for the first session of Parliament, which is expected to be in mid-July. This was the case in 2019. By then, Michel hopes to have a successor named by the 27. “I have made the decision to support European legitimacy. We often receive criticism for the lack of democratic legitimacy of the EU. After four years in a position where When decisions are made at the highest level, it is important to show that we stand up. I will do everything I can to defend my vision, my ideas for the future of the EU. We have to reform it, make it more sovereign, more powerful, and Parliament will be able to do it. with more passion,” he says.

“The first session of Parliament will be mid-July; this makes it easier for the European Council to decide and anticipate the possibility of my successor arriving on time. After the European elections, the institutions will begin a new cycle,” he says. The problem is that if the leaders of the 27 could not agree at the end of June, in the last ordinary summit before the summer break, there would be trouble. Michel cannot be a deputy and president of the European Council. If he takes the minutes he must say goodbye. And if the leaders of the 27 need more time and leave in July, as happened in 2019, or beyond, there will be a void. And under current rules, it would be Viktor Oban who would take the lead.

The setting is surreal. Orban is the dean right now, but it would not be because he has been there longer than anyone else, but because his country assumes the rotating Presidency of the Union on July 1, ironically after Belgium. If by then there is no successor, he would no longer have six months to prepare for the change, as has happened the last two times, but just a few days, Orban would preside over the summits. He has been the leader who has boycotted them, hindered them, who has vetoed the conclusions twice in recent months. The one who prevented a decision to update the EU budget and a financial support mechanism for Ukraine at the last summit in 2023. And who left the room, in an unusual gesture, so that the others would approve the opening in his absence of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.

Michel believes that won’t happen, but he washes his hands and tells his colleagues that they have more than enough time to prepare to prevent that from happening. “Yesterday I personally informed the 27 leaders of my plans. Most reacted positively, others have not because there has been too little time,” he explains.

“I cannot anticipate the EUCO’s decision in June. If they do not want to risk Orban being in charge, it is very easy; let them make the decision, so there will be no surprises, there are seven months for that. Furthermore, the rule by which Orban would assume the responsibility as the temporary president of the EU Council, it can be changed by simple majority before he arrives. The European Parliament many years ago did something similar to prevent Le Pen from being in charge before an important meeting. Hence There is plenty of time until June to decide on my succession and the presidency of the Commission and the high representative,” he adds.

Curiously, in his sentence there is a mention not included: the presidency of the European Parliament, which is now held by the conservative Maltese Roberta Metsola. It is not a coincidence, since Michel does not rule out being able to end up there himself. It would also be a move without any precedent and one that the European Parliament would take very badly. Michel speaks of democratic legitimacy, but if someone fresh from the European Council, and appointed directly by the leaders, ended up in charge of the house, the provocation would be absolute. Parliament has been fighting for a long time to have more weight, so that the presidency of the Commission has to be directly and irremediably linked to the result of the European elections, and that only the leader of each European political family, appointed before them, can be appointed. But this has been systematically rejected by the Council, which has no intention of giving up the powers given to it by the Treaties.

“I don’t want to anticipate anything, step by step. The campaign has not started, we will see in the following weeks. I am totally committed. It is not appropriate to make plans now. I want to be elected in June and then we will see… in politics there are surprises, circumstances, opportunities sometimes, we will see what happens. I am very relaxed. I started 20 years ago in Belgium, I have been in many elections, there are always surprises. We will see what happens. And there are political negotiations to form stable majorities,” he responds cryptically to the questions from this newspaper about whether he aspires to something more than being a rank-and-file MEP. Standing in the way is the leadership of the liberal forces (Renew), now in the hands of a deputy of Emmanuel Macron. Or the Presidency itself, as crazy as it may seem.

The stable majorities he speaks of also allude to a distribution of positions that seems complicated. It is not only the European Council, the Commission, the High Representative or the presidency of the European Chamber, but also the general secretariat of NATO, which will be decided at a summit that same summer. Gender, geographical, population and political balances are needed. Von der Leyen is the top favorite to head the Commission, but the rest remains open. Michel is the first to move, beginning to delimit the board.