Politics & Economics

Charles Michel’s surprise MEP candidacy ignites race for EU top jobs

January 2024
By Maximilian Powell

European Council President Charles Michel surprised many on Saturday, 6 January, by announcing his candidacy as the lead representative for his Belgian centre-right Reformist Movement (MR) party in the upcoming European Parliament elections. If, as widely anticipated, he is elected, Michel will need to resign as Council President before taking the oath as a Member of the European Parliament on 16 July. Typically, his regular term of office at the European Council would have extended until 30 November.

The move leaves uncertainty surrounding the position of Council President – an important role that involves chairing discussions and acting as a neutral moderator between Member State leaders. However, Michel had attempted to quell worries, pointing out that after the European elections, EU leaders are scheduled to meet on 17 June and again for a regular summit on 27-28 June, which could mark the appointment of the new Council president. However, this is a significant acceleration of the decision process, which usually takes months. EU leaders could theoretically also have the option to decide to pick someone as a ‘caretaker president’ until a permanent successor is selected to fill the post. If no successor is chosen, the Presidency role, at least temporarily between July and November, could go to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose country holds the rotating EU Council presidency in the second half of the year – a move that would worry many in Brussels and other European capitals due to the Hungarian leader’s Eurosceptic tendencies and rule-of-law disputes.

Michel’s move also effectively fires the starting gun on the race for EU top jobs and is being interpreted as an indication of his ambitions for the Commission Presidency. His statement, “I think it is extremely important to be accountable” and to support a “democratic vision” of the EU, positions him directly against the current European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen – who is anticipated to seek a second 5-year mandate as the centre-right EPP lead candidate.

Regarding the other main groups, with time running out, the sole name being considered to lead the Socialists’ campaign for the European Parliament elections in June is Luxembourg’s EU Commissioner Nicolas Schmit, who is close to having the crucial support of the German SPD. Candidates have until 17 January to express interest.

For Michel’s liberal Renew group, things are less clear with President Stéphane Séjourné on Thursday (11 January) leaving the European Parliament to become France’s new Foreign Minister. The decision has created a political vacuum for the liberals and complicates the process of selecting Renaissance’s (Emmanuel Macron’s political vehicle, which is a member of the Renew Group) lead candidate for the June EU elections – a role that was initially expected to be fulfilled by Séjourné. In addition, Renew is yet to finalise their campaign strategy, with Séjourné previously proposing selecting a team of candidates for various top EU jobs next year instead of uniting behind a single lead candidate.