Europe’s odd couple: The dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the EU

Relations between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel have never been so bad.

By Suzanne Lynch

When the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries meet at the G20 summit in Bali next week, don’t expect the European Union to present a united front.

Rather than coordinate, the bloc’s top two officials — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel — are more likely to avoid each other, with staffers involved in organizing the trip under strict instructions to avoid any overlap in itineraries.

In the nearly three years since their tenures began, relations between Michel and von der Leyen have undergone an extraordinary breakdown, with staff from the two institutions discouraged from communicating and the two leaders locking each other out from meetings with foreign dignitaries

The dysfunctional partnership is not only impacting the EU’s legislative and political agenda, which depends on a delicate inter-institutional balancing act. It’s also threatening to undermine the EU’s standing in the world. 

One of the centerpieces of the G20 will be a meeting between Michel and Chinese leader Xi Jinping scheduled to take place on the fringes of the summit. Given the divisions within the EU about how to deal with Beijing, it’s shaping up to be a crucial meeting. But von der Leyen hasn’t been invited. The reason? Her refusal to allow Michel to attend a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G7 in Germany in June. 

Rivalry between the Commission and the Council has long been a challenge due to an inherent structural tension within the EU’s byzantine system.

The Commission is the bloc’s executive arm, with the ability to propose legislation, putting its president at the heart of nearly every EU initiative. But the Council is where heads of state or government meet to turn proposals into law. Though its president plays a coordinating role, moderating the debate between the real decision-makers, the position is arguably closer to where the bloc’s real power lies.

With the two roles assigned overlapping areas of responsibility the result is added confusion to the age-old question often attributed to Henry Kissinger — who do you call when you want to call Europe? (The European Parliament, with its own president, provides a third center of power, but few would argue it is anything other than a younger sibling to the other two).

The personality clash between the current incumbents has taken inter-institutional competitiveness to another level, according to multiple EU officials, including those who worked under previous administrations when Jean-Claude Juncker headed the Commission and Donald Tusk was president of the Council. 

Meetings between von der Leyen and Michel are virtually nonexistent, even in the run-up to European Council summits, typically the forum where the EU makes progress on the big strategic and immediate challenges facing the bloc.

Officials from other countries and international bodies are frequently confused as to who their interlocutor should be. Staffers at the two institutions report a tit-for-tat attitude between the Commission and Council toward attendance at meetings with third parties. During rolling discussions on the global food crisis, United Nations representatives were surprised when a senior EU staffer who had previously been part of the talks was suddenly cut out of subsequent meetings. 

“Communication has completely broken down,” said one official who wished to remain anonymous.

Von der Leyen on the couch

When von der Leyen and Michel were picked to head the two most powerful EU institutions in 2019 they made an unlikely pair. Von der Leyen, a defense minister in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, had spent most of her career in domestic politics; Michel, a former Belgian prime minister from a prominent political family had more EU experience, having sat around the European Council table as leader of his country.

The two shared some biographical similarities. Both came from families steeped in politics. Von der Leyen’s father was director general of the EU’s competition division in the 1970s and later enjoyed a successful career in state-level German politics; Michel’s father was a well-known Belgian minister of foreign affairs, an EU commissioner and a member of the European Parliament.

But in terms of personality, the two are very different. Von der Leyen, a medical doctor and mother of seven, is analytically minded and carefully controlled. Michel is a soft-spoken turtleneck-wearing leader with a penchant for poetry. When he married his long-term partner last year, he invited the spouses of EU leaders to dinner and a special viewing of an exhibition of works by the British artist David Hockney in Brussels’ Bozar center for fine arts.

According to officials, the relationship started off calmly. “There were some minor hiccups, but nothing unexpected,” said one EU official. In the early months, the Council’s secretariat scheduled a weekly afternoon meeting between Michel and von der Leyen every Monday.

But though the meetings soon petered out, things didn’t completely fall apart until April 2021 after the two leaders traveled to Turkey to meet with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Cameras caught von der Leyen’s shocked reaction when Michel quickly snagged the only chair next to the Turkish president, leaving her to sit on a couch across from the Turkish foreign minister. The Commission president, the first woman to occupy the position, later told the European Parliament she was “hurt” by the incident, blaming the snub on sexism.

Dubbed “Sofagate,” the incident went viral globally, with the mutual (if not always public) recriminations driving a downward spiral in relations that has only worsened since.

At the height of the uproar, it was widely reported that Michel added insult to injury by canceling a regular Monday lunch with von der Leyen due to a conflict with a visit by an African head of state. Today, Council officials say that von der Leyen had repeatedly canceled the lunch meetings, even before Sofagate. “In reality, it never took place weekly.” Commission officials say the two meet “almost” every week in various fora, though the scheduled one-to-one has been abandoned. 

In contrast, von der Leyen and Michel’s predecessors Juncker and Tusk met most weeks and had a good working relationship, helped by their previous acquaintance as prime ministers and despite differences over policy issues like migration.

When it comes to Sofagate, Michel appears to have been slow to learn his lesson.

In February 2022, after months of being pilloried in the press, he stood by mutely during a handshake photo-op with African officials when Uganda’s foreign minister breezed past von der Leyen to seize his hand and then Emmanuel Macron’s. (The French president gently suggested to the African dignitary that he might want to acknowledge the Commission president.)

Public tensions

The breakdown in relations has started to impinge on the workings of the EU, according to officials from both institutions.

Though the two leaders appear alongside each other at post-summit press conferences, dialogue on day-to-day matters between the leaders and their close staff is all but nonexistent.

During the Juncker-Tusk years, the leaders of the Council and Commission met regularly ahead of euro-summits with the presidents of the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup, the informal body of finance ministers from the eurozone. Since 2019, however, the gathering has not happened — even as the bloc’s economic difficulties have mounted. 

The Council staff is forced to “chase information like journalists,” said one official in the institution’s Europa building headquarters, complaining that the Commission does not brief Michel on its upcoming proposals, even though those initiatives will ultimately need the backing of the national governments he works with. 

The Michel cabinet typically learns of the Commission proposals at the same time as the “sherpas” or representatives of member countries. “It’s a constant fight to get both sides to share information,” said one Council official. (Commission officials point out that it is the Commission’s prerogative to propose legislation without input from the Council.)

The breakdown in communication has spurred some EU commissioners to resort to reaching out directly to Council staff to ensure that their file or portfolio is given prominence in Council conclusions, the formal documents reflecting decisions taken by national leaders during EU summits.

With private channels unused, tensions have spilled out into public ones, especially over the handling of the energy crisis. This week, in a letter seen by POLITICO, Michel dinged von der Leyen for not coming forward with a proposal for a price cap on natural gas, after national leaders called for one during their October summit.  

The mistrust has also spilled into issues of security. Once, during the COVID pandemic, when von der Leyen’s chief of staff Bjoern Seibert and an EU Commissioner wanted to speak to a high-level counterpart in the U.S. administration, the delegation decided to travel to the outskirts of Brussels to use the secure line in NATO headquarters rather than make use of the Council facility across the street.

It was only this year that the Commission got its own secure room to make calls to the United States. 

Both responsible’

In the contest between the two leaders, von der Leyen is seen as having the upper hand. Though Michel formally represents the EU at external events, the Commission president has emerged as the EU’s most prominent leader, particularly when it comes to relations with Washington.

Since Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has cultivated a close working relationship with von der Leyen’s team, cooperating closely in particular in the area of sanctions. 

Michel, in contrast, struggles to break through. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Brussels in March, protocol dictated he meet with the Council president. But the Canadian delegation insisted that he also meet with von der Leyen, an indication of her international standing.

“Frankly, the view is that Michel has disappointed, but von der Leyen has exceeded expectations in her role,” said one longtime Commission official. 

But when it comes to the breakdown in relations, officials generally agree that both leaders are to blame — Michel for his mishandling of incidents like Sofagate and von der Leyen for her penchant for keeping close control at the expense of collaboration. 

“Honestly, they are both responsible,” said an EU official.  “You had tensions in the past as well, but in the end, it always came down to personalities. Their predecessors realized it was in both of their interests to find a stable working relationship.”

Another longtime EU official said the inter-institutional relationship had never been so low. 

“It makes no sense for the European Commission head and the European Council president to be fighting,” the official said. 

“In a crisis the EU is supposed to come together,” the official added. “Yes, structurally the two institutions are in conflict. There is sometimes not a clear division of labor. But we need adults in the room.”

Joshua Posaner and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

Source: November 10, 2022

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