Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Opinion

In defence of Charles Michel

  • Charles Michel is being criticised for his 'audacity' to want to continue to run for office, exploit his youthfulness and not stop his career in public service (Photo: EU Commission)
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It has become trendy to bash ambitious people these days. In fact, in the corridors of Brussels, increasingly furious murmurs can be heard about one particular ambitious man. That man happens to be Belgian. And his name is Charles Michel.

Michel has led a meteoric rise from Belgian to European politics. A man synonymous with breaking all the "youngest" records, he was elected the youngest Belgian provincial deputy at 18, youngest minister at 25, youngest prime minister at 38, and finally youngest president of the European Council at the age of 44. And that meteor is landing back into Belgium, to the begrudgement of the EU community. This is not his first rodeo. And it is not the first time people have attacked him.

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On the other side of the coin you have the position itself. That role is the president of the European Council. A position that is notoriously known as having the prestige, yet lacking the power, versus the European Commission presidency, which has the power sans the prestige. But the reformist he is — his Liberal political party is called the Reformist Movement — he set out an ambitious re-interpretation of the role during his nearly five-year mandate.

And that led to an avalanche of political backlash.

I say nearly because that is the crux of why people are criticising him — he is being called a "deserter". An "irresponsible" traitor to the European Union, who put self-interest over "self-sacrifice". Sense of duty over irresponsibility. Who instead of finishing the second term of his maximum five-year mandate — four years and 364 days to be more precise — decided to leave four years and 226 days into the mandate, with nearly four months to go. A decision that could have severe implications on his potential successor, as Hungary takes over the rotating presidency of the Council in July.

But did he? Is he? Or rather, can he? And that brings us back to the first point — it is not the act in itself that is really being criticised. It is the ambition. The 'audacity' to want to continue to run for office, exploit his youthfulness and not stop his career in public service.

For if Michel was old and discreet — "forgettable" as some would say — he would have been treated and painted as critically as he is now, as was the case for the only other Belgian to know what it feels to hold the position of president, Herman Van Rompuy. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Yet, the responsibility of preventing the danger of a possible usurpation of power by Hungary's Viktor Orban should lie on the council members, not the president.

Michel gave a sufficient notice period for his departure — six months. If Michel were to instead abruptly resign now, it would be irresponsible. The onus will be on the council members to step up and find a suitable ad-interim president.

Furthermore, Europe has made it a habit to tear down those with ambition and vision. And that is backfiring in the elections across the continent. Europeans are being disengaged by the bickering and bashing, instead of being inspired by ideas and innovations. Stop bashing the person. If anything, bash the position.

Campaigner-in-chief

In reality, the best course of action would be not to bash at all, but rather call for a serious reform of the position. To condemn the presidents of the council from campaigning for elections near the end of their term, would signal a continuation of the real problem — reserving the position for leaders with an ambition to be respected yet forgotten. The council deserves better. Europe deserves better.

Michel's desire to return to campaigning in Belgium and go to the European Parliament is good for Europe. As Belgium risks falling into the hands of the extreme wings in the upcoming elections, a Michel on the campaign trail would make for a stronger and more reliable Belgian presence in the parliament. This is good not only for Belgium, but for the parliament and the council.

And while it is fair to argue and debate his record as president many times over, one thing isn't — his passion and dedication for Europe. I have campaigned with him. He is a fervent public servant who desires to devote his career to serving the public good and to continue being helpful.

Yes, maybe, instead of just being a glorified standard-bearer, Michel decided to be a shaker. But at the end of the day, one thing is clear. And that is, that we need to simply stop the bickering, and start accepting that Michel did the right thing.

Author bio

Nima Hairy is a colleague of Charles Michel, as international relations and European matters representative for the youth wing of his Mouvement Reformateur party.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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