Brussels Briefing

Mar 24, 2023

The Unbecoming Rivalry at the Heart of the EU

A battle of egos between Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel is putting the European Union’s post-pandemic solidarity at risk. The EU’s standard-bearers should do a better job of putting policy goals ahead of personal ambition.

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European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel attend a news conference following European summit in video conference format, in Brussels, Belgium June 19, 2020.
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The European Union is bigger than the sum of its parts, but possibly not more than the sum of its personalities. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel’s notoriously frosty relationship is exacerbating tensions between Brussels and national capitals, making it more difficult to get anything done. While a certain amount of tension is built into the system, it doesn’t have to be this hard.

The European Commission’s job—to both propose legislation and carry out its administration—is designed to balance against the oversight of the member states. Summits among the EU’s heads of state and government offer national governments a chance to weigh in on priorities and provide democratic oversight. Coordination in Brussels is supposed to help the member states find consensus and collectively decide how to move forward.

When it works, the results are historic. EU leaders came together with the institutions to save the euro, develop and distribute a vaccine against COVID-19, and protect the economy from pandemic collapse. At the moment, however, a lack of rapport means new achievements are becoming farther out of reach.

Competing Plans

Consider European efforts to respond collectively to the US Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in clean technology subsidies and a slate of provisions designed to bolster US manufacturing via protectionist tax credits. Not only does the EU not want to launch a new round of joint borrowing, but it also can’t even agree on managing existing industrial policy.

In a bid to show Brussels was doing something, von der Leyen and Michel offered competing versions of a “solidarity fund” designed to help smaller countries spend as freely as their larger contemporaries would like to. Neither proposal had legs. Both showed that political pandering was crowding out problem solving.

Von der Leyen’s Commission recovered first, pushing out looser state aid rules and trade talks with Washington that would restore EU market access to the electric vehicle supply chain. But the bureaucracy under her aegis also roiled feathers with a proposal to set industrial targets through aggressive regulation, in an unfunded bid for top-down economic planning. Von der Leyen’s focus on her own agenda likely made it harder to coordinate what was happening inside the commission itself.

Because it has the right to propose legislation, not just issue political mandates, the commission is a natural power center for the Brussels bubble. Of course, nothing can happen without the political mandate of the national leaders, and the European Parliament has become a strong voice in negotiating the shape of future rules. But the commission’s breadth and technocratic depth means it is in prime position to set the agenda, especially if the member states haven’t made up their minds.

Political will, therefore, is the strongest indicator of whether the leaders will hold Brussels to account or find themselves responding to conditions the other way around. Major crises have a way of forcing the top players to work together. Medium-sized crises, on the other hand, present constant temptation to put national interests first and count on “muddling through” as the perennial stopgap alternative.

An Uneasy Fit

Michel has not mastered the art of calling the meeting to chase the art of a deal. The former Belgian prime minister seems to prefer to surround himself with his own team, rather than rally consensus out of competing factions. His approach shows the limitations of the council president job, created in 2009 as part of the Lisbon Treaty reforms. Its incumbent—there have been three so far—is supposed to be a former prime minister who current leaders can relate to as a peer. But at its heart the job is about finding consensus, not standing prominently at the head of the pack.

This makes it an uneasy fit for someone like Michel, who at age 47 still has decades of career runway ahead. His immediate predecessor, Donald Tusk, was an experienced Polish politician who sought to rally the EU around security concerns, and therefore wasn’t pushing to make a personal mark on the economic issues that are the bloc’s bread and butter. Michel, in contrast, was used to being both outnumbered and at the head of the class. He presided over the lone francophone party to be part of two coalition governments between 2014 and 2019, which ceded the prime minister post to him because it was easier than choosing a lead faction out of the majority Flemish contingents.

The other Belgian to hold the European Council job, Herman Van Rompuy, was nearing the end of a long career dedicated to building consensus in fallow conditions. Van Rompuy reluctantly served as Belgian prime minister from December 2008 to November 2009, leading a five-party coalition cobbled together amid significant domestic tension. When he became the first to hold the European Council post, he brought negotiating ingenuity as well as a commitment to European federalism. During the euro’s sovereign debt crisis, Van Rompuy’s ability to host multi-day all-night summits and pull together smaller meetings of key decision-makers helped the EU find the grit it needed to pull through.

Playing to the Crowds

That kind of team-building is now sorely lacking. Instead of extending their gatherings to allow more time to find solutions, EU leaders now are more inclined to go home early because they don’t see any use in hanging around, and summit conclusions are just getting longer and vaguer. While Michel looks for a policy hook on which to hang his own hat, von der Leyen is playing to the crowds—and not necessarily the insiders she needs to keep getting things done. Her stewardship of the EU’s joint borrowing program during the pandemic won her plaudits from financial markets and global leaders, but not from the conservative members of her own political group. As a result, it’s not clear if her own country will give her the backing she needs for a second term as commission chief. For Germany to give up the EU’s most plum position under these circumstances would be a big political failure.

Von der Leyen therefore needs to counter the perception that she was installed by French President Emmanuel Macron over the objections of her own natural allies. The former German defense minister did, in fact, secure the support of former Chancellor Angela Merkel when needed to win the commission post. If Merkel’s successor, the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, bows to pressure from conservatives to pull von der Leyen because she’s too aligned with European Socialists, that would put an awfully strange loop of personality politics ahead of national and European interests.

The EU can’t afford to fragment now. Climate change, economic uncertainty, and global financial unrest require countries to act together or risk getting swamped by soaring energy prices and supply-chain uncertainty. The bloc’s 27 member states need to manage Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, pursue trade talks with the United States on green technology investment, and safeguard the euro’s role as the world’s second-largest reserve currency. While it might be tempting to retreat beyond national borders, those tasks are too large for any one European country to take on by itself, especially with the US and China intensifying their own global agendas.

Need for Buy-In

Clashing personalities thus put the EU’s broader goals at risk. The roles defined by the institutions do not work without human beings in them, but neither can they function when those humans fail to rally around something bigger than themselves. The top Brussels policymakers can’t just have their own ideas, they need to secure buy-in from the member states they’re there to support. In contrast, when countries put distance between themselves and the Brussels machinery, they undermine the chain of democratic legitimacy that gives the EU its strength. All the good ideas and good intentions in the world won’t work unless citizens stand behind them.

Make no mistake: National voters are the backbone of the European project. Their political energy goes first and foremost into choosing a leader and a legislature at home. Those politicians dictate the message that goes to Brussels, and the agenda of the accompanying envoys. While its nice that the European Parliament offers a route for direct civic engagement, the EU assembly acts to support the system, rather than lead it. Most voters don’t have a personal relationship with their elected EU representatives, who are often chosen off party lists and sit outside national governments. But every voter knows who their president or prime minister is. And it’s that leader who carries the strongest voice for a member state at the European level.

This makes it imperative for top officials like Michel and von der Leyen to cooperate in concert with their constituents, not work around them. The EU’s goal of “ever-closer union” requires its members to work together in all weathers, political differences notwithstanding. Banking union, vaccine development, and the European Green Deal show real progress on that front. But if the leaders behind those programs don’t want to take each other’s calls, all the closeness in the world won’t close the remaining gaps.

Rebecca Christie is a non-resident fellow at Bruegel, the Brussels-based economic think tank, and the Brussels columnist for Reuters Breakingviews.

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