Charles Michel attacks Ursula von der Leyen ahead of European elections

In the midst of the campaign for the Belgian elections on 9 June, it's easy to forget that European elections are being held on the same day. With many of their terms ending, EU leaders are also feeling the pressure: EU Council president Charles Michel attacked European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's record on Monday.

It's an open secret in Brussels that Michel and von der Leyen don't see eye to eye. The rivalry reached a low point in 2021, when Michel claimed the only available seat next to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to Ankara. Von der Leyen was forced to sit on a nearby sofa, giving rise to the term Sofagate.

Damaged reputation

During a press conference on Monday, Michel added fuel to the fire by saying that "we have paid the bill" for the damage to Europe's reputation caused by Von der Leyen's strong pro-Israeli stance, a divisive issue in the EU. The Belgian politician claims that the Commission has become too politicised, making statements without the approval of member states.

The timing of the attack is no coincidence. With the elections on 9 June, von der Leyen's first term is coming to an end, and Michel is doing all he can to prevent a second. “It is driving everyone crazy, because his game is so obvious: making Von der Leyen stumble and dreaming of his own top job,” one EU official told Politico.

"His game is so obvious: making Von der Leyen stumble and dreaming of his own top job"

As president of the EU Council, Michel plays a decisive role in the appointment of the new Commission president, and many European officials fear that he will use this opportunity to further his personal goals. “Many member states are concerned that Charles Michel won’t play a constructive role, but rather pursue a personal revenge agenda,” another official said.


Michel is not the only opponent of another Von der Leyen term. The conservative faces criticism from the left for cozying up to far-right politicians such as Giorgia Meloni and for her migration deals with authoritarian states such as Tunisia. There is also an ongoing investigation into "Pfizergate": text messages between her and Pfizer boss Albert Bourla just before the EU's biggest purchase of the Covid-19 vaccine.

But despite Michel's attempts to discredit Von der Leyen, she remains the frontrunner for the Commission presidency. There are no real alternatives, and conservative parties are doing well in Europe. To secure a second term, Von der Leyen must be nominated by European leaders and approved by the European Parliament.

“Everyone is just tired of Michel”

Michel's term, meanwhile, ends on 1 December and cannot be extended. EU officials say it is unlikely that his attempts to discredit Von der Leyen will result in him securing another top job, due to his poor reputation in Brussels. “Everyone is just tired of Michel,” one Belgian official told Politico back in January.



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