European Council president Charles Michel announced Sunday that he will step down early, setting off a race against time for EU leaders to find a successor for the key position.
The 48-year-old former Belgian prime minister has been organising EU summits and government meetings since 2019 and should leave office in November.
But he said he would leave early as he will stand in the European parliament elections to be held in June. Michel will be the head of the liberal Reformist Movement in the elections.
“Four years after starting my term as a European leader, it’s my responsibility to give an account of my work these past years and to propose a project for Europe‘s future,” Michel said.
He added that he was ready to take a “personal risk” in standing down in such controversial circumstances.
An EU summit is scheduled for just after the June 6-9 elections, and “at this moment it will have to decide when my successor will take up the job,” Michel said.
If European Union leaders cannot find a successor by then, Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has had frequent battles with Brussels, could take the job temporarily.
As council president, one of Michel’s main tasks has been overseeing EU summits that have decided the bloc’s responses to crises including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Orban has maintained close ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin since the war started.
Hungary is due to take over the rotating presidency of the 27-member group from July 1. In that role, it organises EU ministerial meetings.
Michel said he will remain as the council president until he is sworn in as a European parliament deputy, which is scheduled for July 16.
Race for top jobs
His move has been criticised by some European politicians.
Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld, of the liberal centrist Renew Europe party said on X, formerly Twitter, that Michel had abandoned his duties.
“The captain leaving the ship in the middle of a storm. If that is how little committed you are to the fate of the European Union, then how credible are you as a candidate?” she asked.
His move also heightens speculation over many top EU jobs which must be decided by November. The elections for 720 MEPs every five years set off fierce horse-trading for the top EU jobs, including the European Commission and European Council.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, who like Michel was appointed in 2019, has kept quiet on whether she intends to seek a second term.
Michel has said that the EU summit in June could bring forward the appointment of his successor to avoid the risk of a long wait with no one in the post.
Michel said normal procedures could be “changed by a simple majority” vote.
“There are many tools if there would be the political will to avoid Viktor Orban,” said Michel as he defended his decision to quit early.
“It would be very comfortable for me… to wait until December, not to run, not to be accountable… not to participate in the debate,” said Michel, adding that he could have negiotated a new role “behind the scenes”.
Michel said he had informed EU leaders of his decision on Saturday and “most have reacted positively”.
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