European Council President Charles Michel has announced he is backtracking on his plans to run in the European Parliament elections scheduled for June.
The Belgian politician referred to "extreme reactions" to his decision from outside the European Council, suggesting it guided his decision. He also said he was subjected to "personal attacks."
"For all these reasons, and to maintain the focus of my mission, I will not be a candidate in the European elections. I will devote all my efforts to my current responsibilities with steadfast determination until they come to an end," Michel said in a social media statement on Friday.
Had Michel run for the election and won a seat as member of the European Parliament (MEP) in June this year, he would have had to vacate his current post early.
This might have left Hungary's Viktor Orban — arguably the EU head of government that's retained the closest ties to Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine — deputizing for Michel in a key EU role in the midst of a US election campaign almost certain to feature Donald Trump.
What did Michel say?
Michel attributed his decision to withdraw to public criticism of his plans. He said he had anticipated some of the "intense media attention and speculation" which his decision to run gave rise to.
Describing his own decision to run as "unprecedented" and "bold," Michel argued it would have been "perfectly in line with legal and ethical principles," but said the criticism had come to make him rethink the plans.
"I don't want this decision to distract us from our mission or undermine this institution and our European project nor be misused in any way to divide the European Council, which I believe must work tirelessly for European unity," Michel said.
He added that he planned to "reflect on the nature and direction of my future commitments" following the end of his mandate as president of the European Council.
Why has Michel faced criticism?
The former Belgian politician's plans to run for the summer elections have prompted a wave of criticism from fellow European politicians, from within the EU and beyond.
Some voiced fears that campaigning for the summer elections while holding a top position within the bloc would constitute a conflict of interest, for instance on issues like expenses and traveling.
Michel said on Friday that his nomination would have shortened his term and extended that of his successor by a few months, which is true assuming that a successor could have been found in time.
But others had warned that this was only the case if the EU could rapidly and easily agree on a successor, when very often appointing top EU jobs morphs into a protracted and difficult process of horse-trading, as it did after the last European Parliament elections.
Should no successor be found promptly, that is where Viktor Orban would come in. Hungary will hold the European Council's rotating presidency between July and December this year — so almost immediately after the June 6-9 elections. When no European Council president is in office, the head of government currently serving in this rotating position fills in.
Orban has opposed several recent EU steps in support of Ukraine.
Potentially complicating matters further, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has yet to announce whether she intends to seek a second term in office, and would not be guaranteed one even if she sought it. This could leave the EU seeking two high-profile replacements simultaneously at a time of elevated global tension.
German 'ally' of Michel leads critical charge, calling for 'worthy' Council president
In a tweet shared by his Social Democratic Party (SPD), German politician and European Parliament member Jens Geier lambasted Michel for his decision.
"Hopefully the consequence of his ego trip will be that we never see him in charge again," he said on social media.
Belgian MEP Kathleen van Brempt was one of comparatively few European politicians to speak on the record to Brussels-based news outlet Politico in a highly critical feature earlier this month, later publicly sharing third-party reporting on the same story in her native tongue to her followers online. She had told Politico that Michel should step down well ahead of the vote "so that the Council can organize itself" before the summer switchover.
German Free Democratic Party (FDP) politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, whose party represents the same Reform Movement (MR) alliance as Michel at the European level, was scathing in her assessment following Friday's change of plans.
"Yet another U-turn from the European Council President Charles Michel, who is causing confusion. His role is not self-advertisement, rather representing and coordinating with [EU] member states. He's fulfilling none of that. The time has come for a new, worthy European Council president," she wrote.
Strack-Zimmermann chairs the German parliament's defense committee and has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine, although she did not explicitly mention Kyiv or Orban on Friday.
Michel says personal attacks trumping 'factual arguments'
Michel said that his electoral campaign would have been "in strict compliance with a clear distinction" from his current role. He also claimed to be open to "all political criticism and legitimate arguments."
"But personal attacks are increasingly taking precedence over factual arguments. I believe this distorts objective democratic discourse," Michel said, also citing his family's well-being when explaining his decision not to run.
rmt/msh (AFP, dpa)