EU Council President Seat Up For Grabs: 3 Possible Scenarios

Politics - January 24, 2024

One piece of news that took the European public (and the ever-vigilant analysts) by storm this month was the imminent resignation of Charles Michel, President of the EU Council since 2019, who suddenly decided to run in his country’s elections, as politicians usually do. Panicked, as always, the leftists and liberals were quick to jump on Mr. Michel’s case and even throw around concepts such as betrayal and desertion towards the politician that decided to do what politicians do.

Their fear, irrational for the most part, as I will demonstrate in this text, and as Charles Michel himself explains, comes from the timing. Charles Michel’s resignation will come during Hungary’s EU Presidency, and so, if the seat is left empty, Viktor Orbán can choose (or not) to claim it for himself during the second half of 2024.

Viktor Orbán is viewed with skepticism even by pro-NATO and Ukraine conservative parties in Europe due to his refusal of cutting ties with the Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, after the latter launched his war of aggression two years ago. EU officials and commentators are not entirely infused by paranoia when throwing around the scenario in which Orbán claiming the position of President of the European Council could stir up some amount of chaos. That is due to the powers that the Council holds.

One of the primary functions of the European Council is to provide the EU with a unified and strategic vision. It brings together the heads of state or government of member countries to discuss and define the overarching goals and priorities for the Union. By fostering dialogue and collaboration at the highest political level, the European Council ensures that the EU responds effectively to the ever-changing global landscape. The European Council’s ability to mobilize coordinated responses underscores its importance as a stabilizing force within the EU.

Furthermore, the European Council serves as a key driver of integration by providing impetus for treaty changes and institutional reforms. Decisions made within this forum often lay the groundwork for advancements in the EU’s legal and institutional framework. The Lisbon Treaty, for instance, resulted from discussions and agreements reached at the European Council level, enhancing the Union’s ability to act in areas like foreign policy and defense.

With these being said, 3 possible scenarios open up for what will happen after Charles Michel “does the unthinkable” and goes on the campaign trail:

A) Viktor Orbán does, indeed, seize his place (Least Likely)

Hungary’s President, Katalin Novák, spoke to the press on the 10th of January, claiming legitimate interest in the open seat. What was not mentioned was whether the occupation of this seat should come by democratic vote or by exercising the right to do so via the rules of the rotating EU presidency. Mrs. Novák also stated that the priorities of the Hungarian presidency would be demographic issues and the promotion of EU enlargement. She did not forget to mention that Hungary “supports the Western powers” but is also “pragmatic”. To an unexperienced reader it would seem like they are ready for a takeover, but…

Hungary has proven time and again that their go-to tool in international relations is negotiation. Either making demands in order not to vote against Ukraine in the Council, or carefully brokering the end to some sanctions, Fidesz and Orbán have proved themselves savvy businessmen rather than usurpers. And that was the smartest thing to do. If push comes to shove, it should be expected of them to have a rather transactional approach to this affair as well.

Moreover, gone are the days when Poland and Hungary would save each other from sanctions when EU Officials would accuse them of stepping on LGBT rights or other progressive causes that the status quo viewed as a be-all end-all. Even the most conservative heads of state in the EU are firmly backing Ukraine (for good reason) and Orbán is on thin ice geopolitically. Brutal maneuvers like the ones liberals imagine he would do if given the chance (they don’t even tell us which those would be) are highly unrealistic in such a cerebral game. But even if Orbán is evil incarnate (he’s not), there is always option B.

B) A new EU Council President is elected in classic fashion (Possible, but not probable)

Based on the idea that the EPP-S&D-Renew alliance would be maintained post-2024, a lot of former top figures in national governments are gathering their supporters, cozying up to their friends in the press, and they are writing their own name on the ballot. Mario Draghi in Italy, Klaus Iohannis in Romania and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel are only some of those who jumped eagerly at the opportunity.

Theoretically, this would be the only way to go. The European Council votes by qualified majority for a nominee for the post of President, the EU Parliament approves or vetoes, and everyone goes home happy. That is in theory. In practice, the President of the EU Council is one of the top jobs negotiated after the European elections, when coalitions are being formed. It usually comes together in a package deal, where the main actors of a new or old coalition share the top seats by an algorithm based on electoral percentages won. With 2024 looking to be more unpredictable than 2019 was, players want to keep their bargaining chips on the table. At least until they see the percentages won and lost during the public vote.

And that can lead us to…

C) An interim takes over until the end of the term (Most likely)

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Luc Frieden, informed Politico that Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s Prime Minister and current holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU until the end of June, might assume Michel’s position. Alternatively, leaders could designate a temporary candidate to complete the term, providing European leaders with a time-window large enough for negotiations to be held after the results of the 2024 EU Elections are clear.

From what other politicians, advisers and partisan analysts are declaring these days, an interim President of the EU Council (that is not Viktor Orbán) seems the most desirable option for all parties involved. This would be terra incognita for such a high tier position that never saw an interim hold the seat, but politics is a game of “never say never”. In this key one should also watch the elections that will happen in June. Continuation of the EPP-S&D-Renew alliance is not a foregone conclusion, some analysts and pollsters think, especially if groups such as the ECR obtain enough popular support to open new negotiation possibilities.

Conclusion of Charles Michel’s resignation

As far as the EU Council seat of President goes, the anger of the liberals directed towards Charles will eventually cool down. After all, he is not breaking any law with his approach and the status quo will have the first chance to select his replacement. Orbán taking the seat as an interim would have also been inside the democratic and legal framework, though, indeed, it would have presented risks. But luckily, their worst fears will not come true, not this time, as even Mr. Michel explained to them:

I think it is extremely important to be accountable and to support a democratic vision of the EU. I don’t want to anticipate the decision that will be taken by the European Council in June, […] but there are several options, and if the European Council wants to avoid Viktor Orbán, that is very easy.