European House of Cards

3 min read

The episodes of the coming months in European politics promise to be no less exciting than those seen in House of Cards, an American TV series that reveals the darkest pages of political intrigue in Washington DC where personal ambitions override all possible rules and values. To rise higher in the hierarchy of the Washington political elite, the main character – an unscrupulous politician – does not shy away from using tools such as manipulation, deception and defamatory campaigns, all aimed at eliminating his political rivals. For him, no price is too high to achieve his goal which is to gain and keep power. His steps are marked by chaos and disorder.

Sadly, there are many signs that a House of Cards politics has been brought into Europe.

It’s not mere chance that this metaphor comes up now, in 2024, when elections to the European Parliament take place, the European Commission will be newly constituted and the term of office of the President of the Council of Europe expires, to name just a few of the most significant events.

The hypothesis that Ursula von der Leyen is flirting with the idea of taking on another five-year term as President of the European Commission is less surprising than the recent moves by President of the European Council Charles Michel, to announce his intention to be the lead candidate for his party, the Belgian liberal Reformist Movement (MR) in the European elections, then, his unexpected withdrawal some weeks later. Michel’s initial announcement also meant that if he was elected, he planned to take up his seat in mid-July, well before his term as Council president ends in November.

After his first announcement, Michel faced sharp criticism over his decision on social media platforms. The majority of comments was ’The captain leaving the ship in the middle of a storm’-type remarks.

In the absence of any explanation, one could only speculate on what had motivated Michel in this move.

According to the least worst-case scenario, Michel has definitely revealed himself as a a selfish, irresponsible figure who was pursuing his own self-interests rather than the interests of the EU. Needless to say, the fact that Charles Michel is not a top-class politician has been known for a long time.

It shouldn’be forgotten that Michel was the guy who, in 2021 was one of the main characters of the Sofagate scandal, a diplomatic protocol incident that took place in Ankara. The Sofagate was not a mere sexist incident when male top officials, including Michel took a seat in comfortable armchairs and started discussion, without offering an appropriate seat next to them to female President of the European Committee – it was rather about political arrogance. Concretely, it was one of those rare moments when Michel showed his real face.

In 2023, the issue of Michel’s official budget received increased media attention when he asked for a budget increase which was said due to ’increased travel expenses considering the intensified international activity following the war in Ukraine’. At that time, no one dared ask if Michel’s railway journeys from Poland to neighbouring Ukraine had cost millions.

After his announcement to run for a seat in the EP 7 January, Michel has been the subject of strong criticms, even personal attacks that led to another unexpected step – 26 January, he announced on Facebook that he will not be a candidate in the European elections. In his dramatic explanation, he referred to many reasons including strong cricism, increased media attention, distraction of attention from more important issues and personal attacks. ’I will devote all my efforts to my current responsibilities with steadfast determination until they come to an end’, he said.

With his recent decision, Charles Michel gave some breathing space to the EU as his early exit from one of EU’s top jobs threatened to create a difficulty for EU leaders. EU law experts warned that Michel’s decision risks triggering a constitutional crisis. Why so? According to EU treaties, in the absence of an EC president, the country that holds the six-month rotating presidency of the Council takes on caretaker responsibility. This means, that Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban could take the reins at the EC when Hungary takes on the rotating presidency on 1 July and this was the last thing Brussels wanted, considering Orban’s anti-EU and anti-Ukraine rhetoric. Appointment of an interim chief could have been another solution, which, amid two wars and the challenges of the upcoming European elections, didn’t seem to be the best message the EU could send to its citizens.

In connection with the first announcement of Charles Michel 7 January to run for European elections, in addition to the main question of his replacement, two additional questions arose.

One of them concerned the sensitive field of lobbying and decision-making namely, when exactly he will shift into campaign mode and, how he can avoid being biased in favour of his country, Belgium. The other issue concerned his future spendings. There were fears about whether Michel would use his current staff and budget to campaign, despite all the restrictions.

Even if Michel eventually changed his mind and decided to remain in office, what message does the chaos he has created send?

It’s definitely concluded that Michel’s capricious decisions are not only scandalous, but risk causing a potential disruption in the EU. With his passing whims, he didn’t only create conflicts, even a panic in the EU over one of the top jobs, but his negligence indicates poor governance in the EU given that Charles Michel is one the those who’s in charge of really big things in Brussels. With his moves, Michel created a credibility crisis not only for himself but for the EU. The question is who will take him seriously after this incident?

There are likely to be many more dramatic moments we should keep an eye on in the coming months as we watch the first and hopefully final season of the European edition of House of Cards. Get comfortable in your armchairs and enjoy!

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