Elements For A Doctrine: In Conversation With Charles Michel

Elements For A Doctrine: In Conversation With Charles Michel


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Elements For A Doctrine: In Conversation With Charles Michel

Can the Council – this institution of “first instance” now at the heart of the Union’s political dynamics – articulate a doctrine? In the longest interview of his mandate, its president, Charles Michel, discusses his understanding of internal geopolitical dynamics, the lessons of Afghanistan and the essential ingredients to articulate a common European narrative between China and the United States.

This interview is also available in Italian, Spanish, German and Polish on Le Grand Continent.

The situation in Afghanistan has stirred an intense debate across the continent. Does its outcome reinforce President Macron’s position after he declared that the Atlantic Alliance was becoming “brain dead”?

CHARLES MICHEL — First of all, we must be realistic. For twenty years we have been mobilized not only on the military and political fronts, but also on the civil, humanitarian, and development fronts. I was able to experience this period in the various roles I have previously held, first as Minister of Development Cooperation and then as Prime Minister of Belgium. The events of the past few days are tragic, and we must recognize that despite our efforts, this was a failure of the international community. 

Most European countries which were active in Afghanistan, either as a part of NATO or as a part of development missions, made the decision to show solidarity with the United States under the terms of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which was used for the first and only time in history in this instance. 

In retrospect, what is striking to me as a European is that when the United States decided to negotiate with the Taliban under the Trump administration, and then to confirm their withdrawal, they made very few — if any — consultations with their European partners. 

Will the Union be able to learn anything from this?

It is clear that as Europeans we should be encouraged to learn some lessons from this. The Afghan crisis only reinforces and solidifies a conviction that I have held for a while and that is shared with many others. It is the idea of European strategic autonomy, which aims at strengthening our ability to influence in accordance with our interests and values while also placing emphasis on our ability to act. 

Faced with the growing sense of chaos as the American troops were withdrawing, one cannot help but be concerned. That one of the world’s greatest economic powers such as the European Union, a democratic power which holds extremely strong values, a military power made up of twenty-seven nations, is unable to independently guarantee — without the backing of the United States — the necessary assistance to evacuate its citizens and the Afghans who supported them, must be of concern. In my view, this realization only makes a deeper discussion on strengthening European strategic autonomy more urgent. Now we must transform words into action.

In my view, this realization only makes a deeper discussion on strengthening European strategic autonomy more urgent. Now we must transform words into action.

Charles Michel

I want to state this clearly: more European strategic autonomy is not only good for Europe, but also for the rest of the world because the values we uphold are the universal values of dignity and human rights. We advocate for a rules-based Order. Strategic autonomy is also good for our allies as it is always better to be in an alliance where all partners are strong and able to act. 

To that point, do you feel that the Biden administration has acted as an ally to the European Union in the Afghan situation?

The United States is a great ally to the European Union. There is no doubt about that. 

Our history, our values, our understanding of liberal democracy link us, even as liberal democracies face pressure and are being confronted with new threats and dangers which erode their strength and appeal. However, it is clear that, on a geopolitical level, we have noticed in the past few years that there are differences when it comes to interests or how to achieve objectives. This is not limited to Afghanistan, but also concerns other international matters, notably Syria or Iran. 

In that sense, do you see continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations? 

I’m fairly convinced that the Biden administration is sincerely in favor of European integration and that to me seems quite important. I am quite convinced of this after having directly spoken with the American president during the last G7 and during the bilateral EU-US summit. I found him to be very engaged and sincere. His political record attests to this. This is very different from the Trump administration which had a binary and simplistic world view: “I’m strong, you’re weak. And if you’re strong, then I’m weak.” We are now witnessing the return of a more normal and fruitful dialogue which, in the space of a few months, has allowed us to develop consensus on matters that are very important to our common interests. Regarding the climate issue, progress has been made with the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement. We can also clearly see that on a number of geopolitical issues, a more intense dialogue has been reestablished which had practically disappeared with the previous administration. 

That being said, it seems to me that there is a structural trend in the United States — which existed before Donald Trump, though he made it much more visible — to give priority to American interests. We must be very aware of that reality, which is legitimate. I can understand the internal arguments which led President Biden to maintain the withdrawal. I can understand this sovereign and legitimate decision made by the United States. 

As Europeans, we have values, and they are strong values. We also have citizens to protect and interests to defend. Afghanistan is a moment which must prompt us Europeans to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: “How can we have more influence in the geopolitical sphere in the future than we do today, and how can we act in order to influence the course of events in a direction which is compatible with our interests?”

Afghanistan is a moment which must prompt us Europeans to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: “How can we have more influence in the geopolitical sphere in the future than we do today, and how can we act in order to influence the course of events in a direction which is compatible with our interests?”

Charles Michel

Does defining our own interests imply adopting a particular stance in the systemic rivalry between the United States and China?

It implies not being taken hostage by this rivalry. There is no doubt that we share the same democratic values and the same political model as the United States. At the same time, we must develop — as Europeans — our own strategy regarding China, which is a global power. In this regard, over the last few months we have attempted to identify — within the framework of the European Council — the ways in which we will interact with China. 

And what are those?

They can be summed up in three points. First, the desire to be very firm and very strict about our fundamental principles such as human rights. This is the reason why we have put in place frameworks which will lead us to take action when necessary: we have been very clear about the Uyghurs or Hong Kong, for example.

Secondly, the freedom to discuss global, multilateral issues where we feel that dialogue is necessary. This is the case in the context of Covid, even if it involves difficult discussions because there is a need for transparency, and we are not yet convinced of China’s complete transparency in regard to the virus’ origins. Climate and biodiversity are also examples of key dialogues that we must have with China. 

Finally, there is the rebalancing of relations in terms of trade and, more broadly, economics. In fact, this was the purpose of the draft agreement on investments which was, in my opinion, a first step to rebalancing access to our respective markets. 

In the event that this rivalry was to escalate in intensity, could the Union realistically manage to establish a non-aligned position? Or would the EU end up ‘tipping over’?

We spoke about this a lot during the G7, this group which brings together the major liberal democracies and economic powers. The goal is to be united and to come together. If the liberal democracies were to tear apart, it would be a major mistake. However, being united and together does not mean that we follow a position which is mechanically imposed on us. It is a process of collective intelligence which allows allies and partners to develop a position and a strategy together. This process was able to really get under way in the context of the G7 and should, I think, continue with all partners who are close to us. We should all try to be engaged to discuss together the best way to efficiently guarantee our interests. 

Defining European interests is at times elusive, but you have a privileged vantage point on internal geopolitical dynamics. In your opinion, what threats could Member States find to create a common narrative? 

I will answer your question in a different way. Our generation — which, it is necessary to recall, is only the third generation in the history of European integration, this political project which is unprecedented and extraordinary in the truest sense of the word — needs a positive project, a proactive project, a project which is for and not a project with is against, which would simply react to anxieties and fears. 

This narrative must be built around three central elements.

The first element is, without a doubt, our fundamental values. This is a never-ending task: how to protect and promote this European project marked by humanity, humanism, dignity for every human being, the principles of liberty, of non-discrimination, the rule of law? These values are the foundation of the European project. It is not just a shared space. The society in which we live and which we will create — whether in terms of digital challenges, the climate challenge, or other hybrid threats — will increasingly focus the debate on personal freedoms. I strongly believe this. And so, there is the question of the democratic framework: do we have political frameworks that fully guarantee personal freedoms?

The second element for creating the common European narrative is that of defining the model of prosperity that we want for the future. In this respect, I will point out that if migration is at times a tense subject, it is because the European Union is attractive for people abroad who believe that living conditions in Europe are better, that liberties are stronger, and the environment more respectful of human dignity. We must ask ourselves the following question: What model do we want in order to protect and promote our prosperity in the future? In this regard, we have made very clear choices. It is not easy, but we will implement them. 

What are the specifics of this change?

The digital and climatic transitions herald a complete change of paradigm and model that our generation is facing. I’m forty-five years old. For my parents and my grandparents, even perhaps for myself fifteen or twenty years ago, the mindset in terms of production and consumption was based on the belief that by exploiting natural resources — with the illusion that they were infinite — we could automatically improve living conditions and prosperity in Europe and other Western nations. There was perhaps a certain amount of good faith in believing in this model. But science, for a number of years — and we must recognize that it took us some time before we could face the truth — showed us that this model would not last and that it would put humanity in danger. 

In the past few years, and particularly in Europe the past few months, we have succeeded in reversing this model, in making a conceptual 180 degree turn. This is the purpose of a decision made before the Covid-19 crisis, the famous Green Deal, which entails commitments to reach climate neutrality in 2050, the strengthening of climate goals between now and 2030, and the imperative need to be more committed to biodiversity and to stop its degradation. We are absolutely convinced that it will be difficult to go from one model to the other, that we must transform in order to shift to a capacity for additional prosperity. It is this moment of transition, this dual paradigm shift, which is difficult. For now, we are still in the middle of a battle, and we must still work very hard if we want to transform our current model. At the same time, the fight against climate change gets to the heart of a dilemma specific to democracies: how do we reconcile the short and the long term? Democratic political engagement is always focused on the next election, yet we need to be able to think about the impact of our decisions not just for the next election, but the next generation. 

Democratic political engagement is always focused on the next election, yet we need to be able to think about the impact of our decisions not just for the next election, but the next generation.

Charles Michel

In your opinion, what is the third ingredient that must be included in the common European narrative?

This comes back to the question of stability, security, and geopolitical influence. How can we bring the twenty-seven European States closer together so that we increasingly have common positions in terms of analysis and diagnostics and in terms of the means of actions to defend our interests? We have a certain history: Europe was the sum of different nations, each with its own vision, expressed within the context of its own sovereignty in order to defend its own geopolitical interests. But more and more we see, sometimes with success, sometimes with failure, that there is movement and progress. This will no doubt still take time. But when there are crises — and Afghanistan is one of them — we must have the institutional ability to act in order to advance further. That’s what I think we need to do now. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Let’s come back to the three elements of a common narrative. In regard to the first one there is an obvious, almost glaring question: are the values of PiS or Fidesz compatible with the fundamental values that you mention as a basic ingredient of the European project? 

In either case, what is certain is that this question you are asking has been asked to European leaders and governments and that it is being asked right now in the European institutions. Whether in the Parliament, the Commission, or the Council, there is open debate — not only in regard to Poland and Hungary, but also in regard to other European nations. Are the decisions and directions taken compatible with the fundamental European principles?

This is a pressing matter that we are not looking away from. We are facing it head on. To give you a clear example, during last year’s major negotiations which led to the adoption of an unprecedented recovery plan, we decided to set up a mechanism to make financing conditional on respect for the rule of law. This tool strengthens the arsenal within the European democratic framework and gives the European institutions additional means to be more demanding when it comes to the rule of law and therefore to values.

The second ingredient concerns prosperity. Do you think that the model of European ecological transition will be able to compete with those established by China and the United States? Are we overestimating the positive aspects of the transformation that awaits us?

What is certain, and we really showed it the past few years, is that Europe is the global driving force on the subject. There is no doubt that we are leading the way.

But leading on this front is above all a moral duty. It is a very concrete manner of defending our values — I will come back to this — and our view of human dignity as the central element of our political project. It is therefore not, in my view, an accident that Europe is the global region which places the most emphasis on this issue. 

Now, it is true that once we decided to reach carbon neutrality in 2050, in reality we only tackled the easy part of the task ahead. The hard part comes now. How do we implement this goal that we set for ourselves? This challenge teaches us that Europe is neither an island nor a closed-off continent: we must act at the international level and put into action what I call climate diplomacy to encourage other global actors to have similar ambitions to ours. There is a very simple reason for this. If we do not make this effort, we will have a problem of equity in international economic and trade relations. 

We must pay attention to the effects that these measures have on European citizens and our economic actors. It would be very problematic to set standards or ambitious goals in a highly globalized economy while at the same time allowing others to access our domestic market with products and production methods that do not meet those same standards. 

In this respect, it is interesting to note that last year, when we were debating the European budget and the repayment of the common debt, we also addressed the issue of our own resources. We had a democratic debate within the European Union on how to develop an irreversible mechanism. What did we identify as new resources? The plastic tax and carbon pricing as central measures, together with the idea of a border carbon tax, which provoked reactions in other regions of the world among the major powers such as China and the United States.

From my point of view, we are in the process of establishing ambitious programs on climate and biodiversity within the European Union. We are changing the system, we are changing the paradigm, we are adopting highly innovative measures, and we are indicating to the economic sector that we are moving beyond a model that is endangering the planet. At the same time as we are doing all this, we must, by all means available — through diplomacy, through promoting our interests, or through geopolitics — push other actors to commit. That is what we are doing now, especially with the carbon border adjustment mechanism.

What are the concrete means to support this geopolitical climate policy from the Union’s point of view?

I think that there are two main tools on the international level to transform this model both in Europe and the rest of the world. 

First of all, the price of carbon. The question is whether we will succeed in encouraging models similar to the European ETS (Emission Trading Scheme) in order to achieve greater consensus. Europe’s strength is to be on the cutting edge of standards. We are gradually seeing others adopt a similar approach — or even the same approach.

Europe’s strength is to be on the cutting edge of standards. We are gradually seeing others adopt a similar approach — or even the same approach.

Charles Michel

Secondly is green finance. Since this transition entails colossal investment, public money alone will not be enough to finance what is necessary in terms of investment: we must channel private investments and establish standards for financial products to make them greener and therefore more responsible. This is another tool we have in Europe, in association with our partners around the world.

Guiding the democratic debate on the price of carbon, which concerns the question of purchasing power, is a difficult challenge. This debate is being held in the context of the Fit for 55 package and the issue of green finance. It is a question of establishing standards for financial products to channel investments towards what is good for achieving this transformation and putting an end to investments that result from the previous model — which can no longer be our development model.

Let’s come back to the third element of your positive narrative. If we look at a map of the European Union, we realize that all around the border regions — from Minsk to the Maghreb — that there is a series of crises of varying intensities, creating a tense arc of crises. Faced with these various crises, why are we unable to adopt a systematic, common discourse? 

I don’t agree. On the contrary, I believe that we have common positions in these unstable and unsafe situations which surround Europe, and I can describe them. If I take Belarus for example, immediately following the elections a year ago we held a common European position: we did not recognize the results of these elections. Secondly, sanctions were established, and the United Kingdom and the United States followed suit following the sanctions that we had put in place. 

Do you have the impression that these sanctions helped to change the crisis in Belarus? 

If these sanctions have not resolved the crisis, it is true, they express opposition in a united and clear way because they were decided with all the European States. 

Let’s look at another example: the Eastern Mediterranean which caused considerable alarm last summer. There was great concern about the risk of serious military incident. We worked for several months with the twenty-seven heads of government to align our common position towards Turkey, who is an important NATO partner. It was important to clarify the manner in which we wanted to interact with Ankara, and we now have a very clear position: a willingness to develop a more positive — or at least a less negative — agenda in the context of a customs union, for example, or cooperation relating to the migrant issue and, at the same time, a firm stance on a certain number of principles relating to the democratic framework, such as women’s rights, or Turkey’s role in the region. In this respect I think that the European Union has advanced in its ability to align positions. 

There was a moment of internal dialectic at the Council which connected Belarus and the Eastern Mediterranean. In September 2020, Cyprus threatened to block the sanctions against Belarus as a way to secure sanctions against Turkey. Isn’t this proof that the attempt to forge a common geopolitical vision is struggling to overcome national interests? 

This is an interesting topic, but it is important to note that what the press has reported does not take into account the points of view that are expressed around the Council table. There has been real progress in terms of a common European consciousness on the geopolitical level. Of course, this does not mean that there are not at times issues that are so important to member states that the temptation is great to use others to advance one’s point of view on a given issue. But concretely, around the table, we had to deal with the matter of the Eastern Mediterranean on its own and the Belarus matter on its own. 

Can you elaborate on that point?

I cannot comment on the discussions that take place behind closed doors around the Council table. However, I can say that each debate received its own space for discussion. If the question is whether there was blackmail by one side against the other around the table, the answer is a clear no!

At the same time, we must also ask how to have a greater impact and influence from this common position we have reached. The difficulty is that there is never an identical turnkey solution that can be applied in all circumstances for all crises. This is why we must use the means at our disposal judiciously, always trying to pursue our interests in a coherent manner. This means that we must at times use military force, at other times development, and at other times humanitarian support in the name of stability.

We must use the many tools at our disposal, but we must do so in a sufficiently coordinated way, both at the level of the European Union and between the member states. In order to have more influence, we must use these tools better and with much more consistency.

In order to have more influence, we must use these tools better and with much more consistency.

Charles Michel

In your opinion, why does it seem that the Council is sometimes blocked in using all the tools at its disposal? 

I wouldn’t say that. We use them, but not with the necessary consistency. It is explained in part by the institutional structure of the European Union: on the one hand, member states have decision-making capacity and tools in relation to certain regions of the world, on the other hand, within the European Commission, there are different administrations. This structure at times highlights the need to improve the horizontal nature of our approach.

Can you give an example?

I am very convinced, for example, that one of the key issues is our relationship with Africa. On this issue, the European Union has an enormous capacity for action and many tools, but we sometimes lack coordination and consistency in the manner in which we deploy our resources. We have a trade policy, a visa policy, a development policy, technical expertise… These are all tools at our disposal, of course, but perhaps we lack a unified command of their deployment.

Don’t you think that, given the inherent differences between governments, unanimity constrains the development of strategic autonomy?

I am aware that I have an unusual position on the unanimity rule. For some time now, it has almost become a truism, an obvious assumption: the unanimity rule would be a hindrance and a source of weakness for the European Union. I understand this reading at first glance. I myself have at times been disappointed that it takes so long to decide on an important subject. I understand this impatience and this reasoning. But I also believe that it is necessary to think carefully in order not to be fooled by a false good idea. Please note that I am not saying that this is a false debate, it is simply appropriate to ask ourselves the question.

Why do you think it would be a false good idea? 

When you think about it carefully, it is obvious: when we are united, we are strong. Every time we are not united, we are weak, and we have no impact. If we abandon unanimity too quickly, we risk also abandoning the necessary effort to create this unity by creating situations which would give certain member states the impression that their point of view is not important or welcome. Since they are no longer needed anyway, there is no longer a reason to attempt to build a common project together. 

It is true that unanimity requires considerable political effort, a great deal of investment, and a great deal of energy. But it is a rule which, if and when it is made to work, brings unity, and therefore strength, and therefore influence and power. To abandon it is to take the risk — though at first glance it may seem counterintuitive — of contributing to the weakening of European integration.

One issue seems to be at the heart of tensions and blockages: the Russian file. Strong national sentiments are emerging. The positions of Estonia and Poland towards Russia differ from those of Spain or even France and Germany. Is there a way for a kind of synthesis to emerge in the Council between these visions, which at times seem incompatible?

First of all, these visions are not incompatible. If this were the case, we would be divided each time that sanctions had to be imposed on Russia. Since sanctions were agreed on, we have always reached consensus without difficulty.

These past few months, I had hoped to open strategic debates. I already mentioned the work done on China. Russia is a part of these discussions. I think that if we want to advance a common European geopolitical consciousness, we must start by having the same level of information. That means talking to each other, exchanging. It means collective intelligence, in both senses of the word intelligence in both French and English. I wanted to give everyone space to listen to each other’s analyses on all these subjects. I think that this mutual understanding has progressed a lot lately.

It is also clear that many of us believe that we must have a strategy with regard to Russia that is not just an immediate reaction to pressure and attempts at destabilization. We must also think more proactively, which is to say that we must think about what we can do to defend our interests. There are two key elements in this regard. On the one hand, there is the Eastern partnership: these are our neighbors, and it is in our interest that these countries experience economic development, prosperity, stability, and share values similar to ours as much as possible. On the other hand, we have the Western Balkans. We cannot keep these two subjects in the European refrigerator in Brussels and organize a summit every two years to make declarations that do not translate into concrete and tangible outcomes for the people. This is why I modestly rolled up my sleeves in the context of the Eastern Partnership, to be engaged in Georgia and Moldova during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. That is why I supported a clear and strong joint position on Belarus. That is why, on the issue of the Western Balkans, I was at the Bled forum two days ago — which was very informal but very useful — in preparation for the summit that will take place in October, and which comes after a virtual meeting that took place under the Croatian presidency. What we need is tangible outcomes; our actions must be visible and perceptible. We need to encourage economic cooperation and investments in these countries and to promote our standards. I’m circling back to our values, but it is also our belief in the prosperity model. The “digital and climate” objectives are the compass which guides us.

I’m circling back to our values, but it is also our belief in the prosperity model. The “digital and climate” objectives are the compass which guides us.

Charles Michel

The word “geopolitics” is omnipresent today, but it was not part of the everyday vocabulary in Brussels until recently. How do you explain its sudden importance?

It seems to me that common sense is increasingly prevailing. In today’s world, when we open our eyes, many people understand that none of the countries in the European Union — even the most powerful, the most inventive, the most innovative ones — can single-handedly exert influence over the economic, military, or geopolitical powers that defend their vision or their interests or try to promote their values. On the other hand, the European political space as a whole has the ability to exert real influence.

In that case, it seems as if the Council has almost become the supreme authority for the direction of European politics…

I would say the opposite. I believe it is a point of entry to European politics, and that this is in accordance with treaties, which is very important. It is the political space where, at the highest levels of member states, between heads of state and government, we can look each other in the eyes and listen to each other. Sometimes we tell each other frankly what we need to say. Sometimes we have difficult but necessary debates; this is not a problem, but it’s sometimes necessary in order to make decisions together. That is my experience at the European Council. 

Take the climate issue. At the beginning of this institutional cycle following the elections, it was the European Council which set the 2050 deadline and by consequence the reinforcements planned for 2030. And it is in and from this framework that the Commission — which is its role — put in place a strategy and defined measures which will allow us to meet these objectives. 

Another example is the Covid-19 crisis. It was in the European Council, with the strong legitimacy and responsibility of each of the heads of state and government before their national parliaments, that the scope of the European response was decided as early as March 2020. It was in this forum that the balance between what the States wanted to manage at the national level and what they wanted to deal with at the European level could be found.

It is due to the European Council that a financial package was launched to kick-start research and contribute to the first vaccines being approved only a year later. It was through the European Council that we launched COVAX and the financial solidarity mechanisms to ensure that vaccines would be made available around the world. It was also the European Council that laid the groundwork, through the European budget and the recovery fund, for this strategy so that an economic crisis would not be born out of a health crisis. As not all of us were equal in the face of the economic consequences of the health crisis, it was essential to reinforce European solidarity, and this is the purpose of the recovery fund. It was also the European Council that asked the Commission to work on the centralized procurement of vaccines. Without this, there would have been a bidding war between the States. Joint purchasing, which was criticized at the start, quickly proved to be the only optimal and effective model for ensuring that all European citizens would have access to vaccine technologies. We see that now, at the end of the summer, 70% of the adult population is vaccinated in Europe.

From the outside, it seems as if we are facing a fundamental transformation of the European consensus, especially with regard to economic issues. Would you say that we are now entering a different phase, or that this moment is simply a parenthesis brought on by the pandemic?

I think that Europe and the European project have been built in stages, with certain periods of acceleration. Occasionally, these accelerations occur because of external circumstances which are opportunities to expedite the process. This is what is currently happening on the economic front with the recovery plan, which comes on top of the European budget, and which was already based on a rationale of redistribution and cohesion, with contributing countries and recipient countries.

First of all, the recovery plan allows us to consider the repercussions of the pandemic, especially for certain sectors and certain regions, but also to bolster the resources destined for the two major priorities, which are climate and digital technology. Therefore, I would say that this is a measure that creates mechanisms that are largely irreversible because once the mechanics of this recovery fund have been put in place, it means that we will invest together and repay together. This implies that either we succeed in the democratic debate on our own resources, which I mentioned — and we have a broad base of resources that will finance these investments — or the member states will increase their national contributions, or we will reduce expenditures. But I do not believe in the latter option because we are increasingly aware that we need this foundation of European solidarity to mutually support each other.

With the response to the pandemic crisis and the China-U.S. rivalry, many commentators believe that the neoliberal era is coming to an end. Do you think that the role of the state and public investment is changing in Europe?

I would be more nuanced. I know very well from my work that words do not have the same meaning everywhere in Europe — and this is one of the most fascinating challenges of the European project, but it is also this project’s difficulty. The same word can have different meanings and connotations in different European countries, and I know that the word liberal is one of them. Some people confuse the word liberal with the word ultraliberal or neoliberal when they are not the same things.

From my point of view, liberalism, in the true sense of the word, needs the authority of the State because it needs a framework that provides a certain number of rules, in particular to guarantee free and fair competition. The European project was initially based on the need to combat unfair practices and procedures that tainted the free market, that damaged it. I am completely convinced that it is the principle of entrepreneurial freedom, the freedom to innovate, the freedom to create, and the free economy that will continue to be the tools for meeting the challenges of climate change and the digital transition. It is this principle that allowed us to succeed in rapidly developing the technologies that made it possible for us to have a vaccine.

I am completely convinced that it is the principle of entrepreneurial freedom, the freedom to innovate, the freedom to create, and the free economy that will continue to be the tools for meeting the challenges of climate change and the digital transition.

Charles Michel

The support of public authorities must be maintained; they define a framework and objectives, and they can mobilize and direct funding. I believe that there will be a lot of discussion about this virtuous triangle: the economy on the one hand, the social aspect, solidarity, and equal opportunities on the other, and finally the environmental aspect. I am convinced that the democratic debate must be built around this: how can we simultaneously progress on these three fronts and how can we avoid one of these three fronts causing difficulties for one of the other two?

Do you see a consensus forming today around this triangulation?

There are twenty-seven governments around the Council table with political sensibilities that are not all identical, so there is an ongoing debate. But we cannot say that we are proud to be liberal democracies while at the same time being afraid when there are substantial and sometimes heated debates.

There are moments — such as the one we are about to witness with the Stability Pact — when a debate will take place. At the end of the consultations that are now starting, we will put proposals on the table with the Commission. The debate must therefore be allowed to develop, but we will undoubtedly have to make choices about our economic strategies within the common economic project, by strengthening the internal market, because a robust internal market is the best way to cement the European project. This must be done with respect for unambiguously shared values and in conjunction with a common project. Just as in a marriage, we must be looking in the same direction, have shared projects, mutual respect; this is the key to lasting success.

Do you have the impression that an interplay of stable national interests is emerging in the intergovernmental framework, which could withstand internal political divisions or orientations, and which would make it possible to define medium and long-term outlooks?

There is no unequivocal answer to this question. First of all, national interests do not dominate European interests. Secondly, I think that different political parties in different European countries as well as political personalities influence the answer that can be given to this question.

But perhaps we can approach this question in a different way. One of Europe’s challenges, but also one of the strengths and unusual features of this extraordinary political project, is its dual legitimacy. This can be seen in the work of the European institutions, and it can be seen in the European debate. It is a matter of avoiding misunderstandings, misconceptions, or misinterpretations. In fact, the European Union is a democratic space, with democratic institutions, with what I call the European rule of law, which operates in two ways. On the one hand, there is the intergovernmental dimension, with the legitimacy of the heads of government who are each accountable to their parliament, and then there is another legitimacy, that of the European Parliament, with the national election of the members of the European Parliament who show their confidence in the European Commission.

That is the dual interaction. In my position in the European Council, I am confronted daily with this dual mechanism. This can lead to certain tensions. This is inherent to democratic debate and politics. To decide is to strike a balance between interests, according to one’s convictions, and the values that seem essential to us. It can happen — and I experienced this at times as Prime Minister of Belgium — that on the one hand one has a very direct interest for one’ s country within the European Council, but also a European conviction and European values that can be very strong. These interests can sometimes overlap or contradict each other. The question is how to make them converge as much as possible.

Can you give an example?

In the area of the banking union, Belgian governments have traditionally been pro-European integration. However, there are specific situations which, given the structures of Belgian banks, could in the short or medium term be detrimental to the interests of Belgium’s financial structure.

The period that is now beginning is rather unusual: Germany is voting but will probably not immediately have a new government. France is entering an election campaign. How will the Council function during this long electoral process? Will it be able to make decisions on the important issues that await Europe once the pandemic is over?

We are a political union with a democratic framework and twenty-seven countries around the table: there is always an election somewhere. There is always the chance that a campaign will be starting or that a campaign will be ending. Of course, there is no doubt that Germany and France are particularly important countries in this Union. Whenever Germany and France have a common position, it is good for the Union, but it is not enough. This brings us back to the principle of unanimity: we must get all twenty-seven to agree. I am counting on common sense to achieve this.

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Gilles Gressani, Charles Michel, Elements For A Doctrine: In Conversation With Charles Michel, Sep 2021,

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