EU, Michel and von der Leyen separated at home. Metsola overshadowed by Qatargate

Complicated year for the heads of the three main institutions of the European Union

L’The year that is about to close has been complicated for the heads of the three main institutions of the European Union. The president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, that of the European Council Charles Michel and that of the Parliament, Roberta Metsola, after the Covid-19 pandemic that closed Europeans at home, with various stop and go, for almost two years, they had to deal with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which changed the geopolitical coordinates in the Old Continent. You have also restored an ideal sense to liberal democracies, after the neoliberal drunkenness following the fall of communism, in which the West has sinned by arrogance, according to the Economist.

The lesson that comes from Ukraine, writes the London weekly, is that the West is also freedom, something which, as the Ukrainians teach, may be worth dying for. And the support for Kiev, immediately given without reservations despite the initial hesitations of some large member states, has given a new lease of life and an ideal mission to EU leaders, in particular to Roberta Metsola, who was the first to visit by Volodymyr Zelensky, then followed by the other two (separately).

Now Maltese politics, the rising star of the EPP, has to manage a big deal, the investigation by judge Michel Claise for suspected corruption by non-EU states to influence decision-making processes, which has already imprisoned a vice president of Parliament, the Greek Eva Kaili, immediately expelled from Pasok and dismissed from the vice presidency in record time, with an almost unanimous vote. The bags of cash seized from the home of the former television journalist and from her father, caught fleeing with a trolley full of banknotes, rewarded the presumption of innocence, in the knowledge that the damage to the Chamber’s image that would have caused a defense to the bitter end of the vice president would have been enormous, if not fatal.

Metsola has acted decisively, but it is inevitable that the scandal caused by the investigation, with the seizure of cash for around 1.5 million euros, complete with photos of the bundles of banknotes, will temporarily tarnish its image. The mockery of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who for years and years the European Parliament has blamed for the corruption in his country, is also inevitable: the solution to the scandal, said the leader of Fidesz, is to abolish the Strasbourg Chamber , replacing it with delegates from national parliaments. Metsola, who said he felt “anger and fury” over the judicial storm that broke out in his courtroom and surroundings, had to cash in. But the next European Championships are still a year and a half away: he has time to recover, if he cleans up.

Also because on the other side there are von der Leyen and Michel, now officially separated at home, on the two sides of Rue de la Loi. Although it seems that Henry Kissinger never said the famous phrase on the EU’s problem with telephone numbers, the dualism between the president of the Commission and that of the European Council has become much more evident in this legislature. Last December 1, Michel met Chinese president and CPC secretary Xi Jinping alone, not exactly a secondary visit, while von der Leyen traveled to Ireland to meet the Taoiseach, Irish Prime Minister Michéal Martin.

That was enough to rekindle the saga of the two presidents in constant competition with each other. A narrative that has some basis, if the Commission’s deputy chief spokesperson took care to confirm on the record that the EU executive had no “involvement” or “exchange” with Europe Building on the organization of Michel’s visit in China. In other words, they didn’t even ask us if we wanted to go.

Thus the news has become not only the first meeting in person between the leaders of the EU and China since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the persistent competition between the two presidents of the Union. A competition, the one between the former Belgian premier and the former German minister, which has continued since the ‘sofagate’, the diplomatic incident that took place in April 2021 during a visit of the two to Ankara, by the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That episode, with von der Leyen relegated to the sofa while Erdogan and Michel sat in conversation on two armchairs, showed everyone that relations between the two presidents were not excellent, even if EU sources claim that the two have “good working relations “.

In reality, that incident in Turkey was caused, as Libération journalist Jean Quatremer explained on his blog, Coulisses de Bruxelles, by a mistake by von der Leyen, who had not sent his chief of protocol to the scene. There was a precise reason why the Commission’s protocol officer at the time, the French nobleman and ‘enarque’ Nicolas de la Granville, current EU ambassador to Norway, had not been sent to Ankara.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, he had made a fatal mistake, Quatremer reconstructed: on the occasion of an official visit to the Commission, the guest had been sent up in the elevator with the president and with the head of protocol, as required by the Covid regulations . The president’s chief of staff, Bjorn Seibert, had been left outside the lift, for health reasons. But he wanted to go up, together with a collaborator. Furious, he allegedly obtained from the president the head of protocol, appropriately then appointed by Josep Borrell as EU representative in Oslo.

For this reason, if the story narrated by Quatremer is true (and there is no reason to doubt it: it has not been denied), the Commission had not sent anyone to Turkey to take care of the practical details of the visit. But in international politics, protocol is important and Michel, who was prime minister unlike von der Leyen, knows it well, so much so that he, the head of protocol, had sent him to scout and how, Covid or no Covid. However, German politics, exploiting with considerable skill the mistake made by Michel who had sat next to Erdogan, leaving her on the sidelines on the sofa, managed to derive a not negligible image advantage from that incident, appearing as the victim of a sexist act wanted by Erdogan, which Michel was wrong not to oppose. “I felt hurt and alone, as a woman and as a European”, she later said in Parliament.

Since then the narrative of the saga of the two presidents has been a consolidated narrative topos of this legislature. Michel’s visit to Beijing on December 1st, capped by a three-hour bilateral meeting with Xi and complete with a press conference broadcast in streaming, is another chapter in this feuilleton. All the more so since, as an EU source confirmed to Adnkronos, Michel’s cabinet “didn’t make” any attempt to organize a joint visit with von der Leyen to Beijing, which perhaps would have had a greater impact than a solitary mission by the president of the European Council. However, the same source points out that “it is not written anywhere in the treaties that the two presidents must always travel together”.

Indeed, Article 15 of the EU Treaty establishes that the President of the European Council “ensures, at his level, the external representation of the Union on matters relating to its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs”. For the record, the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, was in Lodz, Poland, for the ministerial meeting of the OSCE on that December 1st. The president of the Commission, for her part, “represents the Commission in the meetings of the European Council, in the G7 and G20 summits, in the summits with non-EU countries and in the main debates in the European Parliament and in the EU Council”.

Therefore, according to the treaty, von der Leyen must be present in the EU-China summits, but not necessarily in a bilateral meeting between Michel and Xi, such as that of December 1st. But treaties are one thing, practice is another: otherwise it is not clear why von der Leyen went to Ankara in April 2021, if not for the fact that Turkey is a very important partner of the EU. And it is difficult to argue that China is not a partner of primary importance for the Union.

In the EU there are several institutions, explained spokeswoman Dana Spinant, “and each one has a very specific role and mandate. Sometimes we meet foreign dignitaries or leaders together, sometimes we meet them separately, we travel separately or we receive them in Brussels separately “Depending on many things, including of course what’s on the agenda and what we intend to discuss. That’s why sometimes we travel alone, sometimes we don’t.” In all of this, the contents of the conversation between Michel and Xi have been partially obscured, at least on the media level, although they are relevant: the president of the European Council reported that he had discussed with the Chinese leader both the crisis in Ukraine and the situation in China of the Covid-19 pandemic, reiterating that EU companies are ready to supply vaccines to Beijing, provided that the Chinese authorities approve them.

Foreign policy is hard power and is the domain of the Member States, not of the Union which is the reign of soft power. But the fact that the treaties also assign a role to EU presidents in this field provides the politicians who hold those positions with opportunities for high visibility. So the saga of the two presidents looks set to continue. But in Brussels there are those who believe that the two ‘quarrels’ would do well not to underestimate the third, Metsola, who is young, a woman, from the EPP and very good with the media. Maltese politics ‘burned’ them both, going first in person to Ukraine bombed by the Russians, announcing the visit with a lapidary tweet on April 1 last year: “On my way to Kiev”. Qatargate permitting, the legislature ends in 2024, which is not that far away, and the balance in Parliament is evolving rapidly. Stay tuned, to quote a very capable former chief spokesman.