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20th Jan 2020

EU development commissioner to take unpaid leave

EU humanitarian aid and development commissioner Louis Michel will take a one-month unpaid leave of absence from the European Commission while seeking to re-enter politics in his native country Belgium.

Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso agreed to relieve Mr Michel of his duties as commissioner as of 12 May "so he can be a candidate for his party in the next legislative elections in Belgium" on June 10, the EU executive said in a statement on Saturday (17 March).

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Mr Michel - who oversees the EU's multibillion-euro aid programmes for developing countries - will run for a seat in the Belgian senate, the upper house of the parliament.

"I think it's important to take action for these elections which are vital for the future of the country," Mr Michel - a former Belgian foreign minister - told national television station RTL, according to Reuters.

During his election campaign, Mr Michel will not receive his EU salary, and EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn will replace him in his duties.

Mr Michel is popular in Belgium, where his liberal Mouvement Reformateur party is a coalition partner of prime minister Guy Verhofstadt's liberal-socialist government, writes the Associated Press.

He is almost certain not to be elected as he is at the bottom of MR's list of candidates, allowing him to return to the commission once elections are over, the press reports.

EU executive above national interests

Mr Barroso has not, however, guaranteed that Mr Michel can return to the EU executive, commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen told Danish news agency Ritzau.

Moves between the European Commission and national politics can be sensitive as commissioners who act as the EU's administrators must carry out their roles by remaining above national interests.

However, it is not unusual for EU commissioners to take time off from their duties in Brussels to pursue a political career at home.

Mr Michel himself replaced Belgium's Philippe Busquin - research commissioner in the 1999-2004 Romano Prodi Commission - who took part in elections for the European Parliament and was elected.

In 2004, Greek commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou in charge of employment and social affairs took a period of unpaid leave to stand in the Greek elections in 2004.

Although her party, the Socialists, lost the election, she remained involved in Greek politics as a member of the parliament for the opposition. She was replaced by Stavros Dimas who is now the EU environment commissioner.

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