Charles Michel (Namur, 1975), was interviewed by Room for Discussion on November 20th 2019. The former Belgian prime minister will become the president of the European Council from the 1st of December 2019 onward. In this role, Michel will preside the Council with the heads of government of all EU member states. This is not an unfamiliar environment for him, as his father was a member of the European Parliament and an EU Commissioner.
Michel earned his credentials in Belgian politics. After having held several regional and federal positions, he became the Belgian prime minister in 2014 for the French-speaking liberal party. Belgian politics can be pretty messy, but this could prepare a politician for the European arena. Both are divided by cultural, language and administrative borders, as Michel remarked himself.
Judging from Michel’s interview at Room for Discussion, we know that at least that he already masters the vocabulary of the European Union. He started by giving an optimistic speech which, as expected, was supportive of the European project. He laid out numerous problems he wanted to solve, with Climate Change being the most prominent one. This is in line with the aims of the new European Commission, which has announced a ‘European Green Deal’. This Green Deal is meant to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent in the world. In order to back his case, Michel emphasized climate disasters and potential economic effects. But also the opportunities, such as millions of new jobs.
Michel pointed out three other priorities for Europe to be more assertive on; trade, digital innovation and defense and security. His trade standpoint did not differ from the normal European narrative of free trade, transparent conditions and proper climate standards. He did say that in the eventuality of Brexit, he believed that the EU should still keep very close ties to the UK.
Secondly, Michel emphasized the importance of allowing for digital innovations and being able to participate in the technological race, but on the other hand pointed at the dangers to freedoms. He also shortly addressed that big tech companies should pay their share of taxes in the countries they earn their money.
Lastly, Michel wants to see more and smarter cooperation in defense and security. The EU should start playing a more prominent role on the world stage. Michel tactfully avoided any controversial statement on this sensitive topic. When asked what he thought of a European Army or a United States of Europe, Michel evaded answering the question. Also, he made sure his call for a more independent EU foreign policy could not be interpreted as an attack in the recent US foreign policy. He just states that the EU and US still mostly have the same goals, but the US sometimes takes a different approach.
In the end, Michel did not surprise with any of his statements. He is unequivocally in favor of the European project, and he has fully adopted the European Union’s vocabulary of hope and cooperation. However, since the European legislative process is often opaque and overly technocratic, his words will be more likely to cause cynical reactions than real hopes for the future. It is Michel’s task to prove the cynics wrong. His role in getting the national governments on one line will be crucial in achieving the new European Commission’s big plans for the future.