Rzeczpospolita: Last week, a video from the meeting with President Erdoğan in Ankara went viral in the media. It shows you sitting down with the Turkish leader on special chairs, while the president of the European Commission is standing there surprised, and then she is given a place on the sofa opposite the head of Turkish diplomacy, which is inferior in terms of the protocol. Your lack of reaction to this affront from the Turkish side has been heavily criticised. What is your response?
Charles Michel: First of all, I deeply regret what happened. If I could, I would like to reverse this situation. I couldn’t sleep that night, mentally running over this picture 150 times. Post factum, many may say that I could have done this or that. My impression at that moment was that if I had reacted somehow, the situation could have been even worse, because I would have destroyed the months of preparation that went into this visit. Besides, Ursula von der Leyen reacted in her way and I thought that it might be seen as paternalistic if I were to compound this. There are certainly lessons to be learnt from this regarding the preparation of meetings.
No one has apologised for it. Ankara says it acted according to the request of the EU.
It appears that EU protocol wasn’t implemented in the room beforehand and no information was given about how people would be seated. I forcefully restate my regret to the European Commission, but also to women in general who may have felt offended by these images. Protocol Service must learn a lesson from this. I take my share of responsibility, as I am president of the European Council. I am particularly sad because it drew attention away from the message of this meeting, which was the unity of the EU on an important geopolitical issue. We have worked with all the member states in recent months to prepare a clear and strong European position for the Ankara visit. Unfortunately, because of this shameful situation, it is easy to underestimate how important this meeting actually was. We talked about the rule of law, freedom of expression, European values, economic cooperation, the big financial package to make the customs union work better and, finally, immigration. Over the last five years, we have worked together on policies concerning refugees. Sometimes it was difficult, sometimes we were victims of pressure. There are four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the EU is funding them through a programme approved five years ago. We need a change of atmosphere in the tense relations with Turkey. The EU needs a stable, prosperous and secure environment. Every time there are tensions in our environment, we are under different kinds of pressure: political, economic, migration. Turkey plays an important role in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, and I wanted to make our European position clear.
And do you plan to directly put the topic of the rule of law on the table of the EU leaders? After all, one can see a crisis of the rule of law that has been growing for years. And the only institution that has not discussed it is the European Council. What are you afraid of? Losing unity? If you dare to talk about this with Erdoğan or Putin, why, then, do you not raise the subject with Orbán, Morawiecki or Janez Janša?
We decided as the European Council to create a connection between EU funds and the rule of law. And we had a discussion on this topic both in June and then in December. Our aim is to strengthen the EU’s legal framework so that we have stronger tools to deal with wrongdoings in all member states. The European Commission has also implemented a new system for annually reviewing the state of the rule of law in its member states. So this will be a constant topic of our discussions in the future. Maybe there is an impression that the European Council is not dealing with this. But I assure you that at every meeting the leaders express their opinions on the rule of law, democracy, European values. The decision that we made last year was a big step. But at the same time, these last months have been dominated by the pandemic and its logistical problems. Numerous summits are held in the format of videoconferences, and it impedes many discussions.
Don’t you think that the Ankara incident calls into question the current institutional order of the EU? Doesn’t this institutional order make achieving the ambitious goal of the EU’s strategic autonomy impossible? The conference on the future of Europe is now beginning its work. Shouldn’t we seriously consider amending the treaties?
Of course conclusions should be drawn, and discussions can be held as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. However, I would like to point out the amount of important decisions we have taken over the past year. We had first to show that we are united against Covid-19, but also had to make decisions concerning the climate or the digital agenda. Another issue is fair taxation. Joe Biden’s announcement of an American initiative to tax multinationals is also a success for us. The EU is often referred to as a regulatory powerhouse. We decide on standards which are then often copied by the rest of the world. This is also our strength. These decisions show that the institutional system plays a positive role. I would also add that the European project is unique, it cannot be compared with anything else in the world. While it is in constant evolution it is based on two legitimacies. The first is European: European elections, European Parliament, the so-called Community method. And the second one comprises the member states and the Council. There is a tension between these partners, because Council members are accountable to their national parliaments, to their constituents. But the EU must march on these two legs.
You talk about the success of agreeing on the Recovery Fund. This decision has still not been ratified by all member states. When will this money be paid out? And, given the prolonged pandemic, shouldn’t the EU be looking for additional money?
The decision to release a total of 1.8 trillion euros was a historic moment. Now it has to be implemented. There is a lot going on and governments are in constant contact with the European Commission discussing their recovery plans. So far, 16 countries have ratified the decision enabling the mobilisation of the Recovery Fund. It will be crucial to complete this process by June/July. The aim is to make investments quickly and efficiently, focusing on the EU’s priorities: the climate and digital agendas. These are the two key levers for the shift of the economic and social paradigm in Europe for the next 15 to 20 years. Some people compare the amounts of money in the American and the EU plan and say that the former is much bigger. I do not agree with this. One has to look at the bigger picture in order to make a proper comparison. Firstly, this fund of 1.8 trillion euros does not include national resources. Secondly, you have to look at the starting point. In the EU we traditionally have so-called social stabilisers, much stronger than in the US. They are partially absorbing the shocks caused by this crisis and will play a role in economic recovery. When we sum it all up, I think our plan is solid.
Are you not worried about the decision of some member states to buy vaccines from Russia? First we had Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. But now Germany’s plans are perhaps even more worrying, as it is no longer a matter of just buying a few hundred thousand doses at a time when every vaccine counts, but of building factories for Sputnik V in Germany. That is a long-term dependence on the Russian vaccine. Don’t you think that we should be seeking unity at EU level on such an issue?
It is true that the pressure to vaccinate quickly is enormous. So I understand the determination of some governments. As far as Russia is concerned, there are different sensitivities within the EU. There is an ongoing dialogue about Sputnik V in the European Medicines Agency (EMA), we should follow its recommendations. Russians have a problem with production capacity, so they are looking to build manufacturing plants in Europe. This will certainly be a topic of discussion at the next European Council. Some countries want to order them, but only after the EMA authorisation. But then there is the question of insufficient production of Sputnik. I think the key is to increase the production of European vaccines. This is happening very fast.
A pandemic involves closing borders. What message do you have for countries like Belgium, that are closing their borders against the Schengen code and against the recommendations of the European Commission? And given that the pandemic will not be over in a few months, should we get used to the idea that the upcoming vaccine certification will become the norm for travel?
The Commission is in contact with the government in Belgium, which is not my role. I would like to note, though, the Belgian government’s announcement that they will lift the restrictions soon. Regarding the vaccination certificate, I do not have a definitive answer. The aim is to have a common certificate so that when the situation becomes relatively normal, we see a return of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of movement. Now we are working on what information this document should include. But it is impossible to say with certainty what travel will look like in the future. Certainly after a shock like this pandemic, the world will not be the same. When there was a wave of terrorist attacks, it caused long-term consequences for travel, for maintaining security, eg at airports. Now there will probably be long-term sanitary consequences as well.
The interview was carried out with a group of correspondents of European newspapers: Rzeczpospolita, Handelsblatt, Il Sole 24 Ore, Les Echos, L’Echo, De Tijd, and Financieele Dagblad.