The EU is ready for the next phase of Brexit but risks greater internal divisions over trade talks with the UK, one of its incoming leaders has said.
In one of his first interviews since being nominated president of the European council, Charles Michel said Brexit may have played an important role in bringing the EU together.
The former Belgian prime minister will take the reins following a formal handover ceremony on Friday in his Europa HQ in Brussels, as Donald Tusk stands down after five years in post.
Michel’s first big moment will be chairing the EU summit on 12-13 December – election time in the UK.
EU leaders will probably be finishing off their three-course dinner when exit polls drop on polling day, revealing whether Boris Johnson’s election gamble is likely to have paid off.
Michel said he hoped the election would bring clarity on whether the UK would ratify the withdrawal agreement. If Brexit happens on 31 January, the two sides will immediately embark on an 11-month race to negotiate a free-trade agreement.
“We are ready, we know what the most important principles are we want to defend and promote in the next phase,” Michel told the Guardian and six other European newspapers. “We also know what are the top priorities: the integrity of the single market, the level playing field [fair competition], the Good Friday agreement.”
The EU would have to “work again very hard” to maintain unity, he said, especially as countries had different economic interests in the UK relationship. “There is a risk to be divided based on different economic situations in different countries. But if we use the same transparent way of working, it is the best guarantee to maintain unity.”
Michel declined to predict whether the two sides could agree a trade deal in just 11 months. In the annals of trade talks this would be an unprecedented feat and one senior EU diplomat said he could not see it happening “in my wildest dreams”.
Michel said he wanted to avoid Brexit becoming a big issue for the summit, as he planned to focus on the eurozone, climate change and the EU’s next seven-year budget.
Unlike Tusk, an unabashed anglophile who recently declared “in my heart I will always be a remainer”, the Belgian leader avoids flamboyant statements. “There are many things in my heart and certainly I also regret the choice, but I respect the choice of the British citizens.” He added it would be important to “show serenity” in upcoming talks.
His priority is making Europe a more united player on the world stage, as he warned against the possibility of the union becoming “the collateral damage” in a possible cold war between the US and China. “There is a risk that in the long term, there is a new cold war between the United States and China … I don’t think the destiny of Europe is to become a junior partner.”
Michel said EU leaders needed “more strategic discussions”, including in dealing with China, before two summits with the country next year.
Unlike his predecessor, who once listed Donald Trump’s “worrying declarations” as one of the threats facing Europe, Michel struck an emollient note towards the US. He said the EU and US shared “the same goals” and many common values, although he noted the two were at odds over climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.
The softly spoken son of a former Belgian deputy prime minister, who has been involved in politics since his teenage years, Michel has broken many political records. He was Belgium’s youngest-ever minister (aged 24) and youngest-ever prime minister (aged 38) when he formed an unwieldy four-party coalition dominated by Flemish nationalists in 2014. The coalition collapsed in 2018 when Michel insisted on signing a UN migration pact, against the wishes of the larger Flemish nationalist party.
Describing himself as a bruggenbouwer (bridge builder), he said his experience in Belgian politics would help him forge compromises among 27 countries. “Many people say Belgium is a mini-Europe,” he said.
Michel, a liberal ally of Emmanuel Macron, is seen as close to France, but sought to stress he was his own man. He said the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was the first EU leader to suggest he consider the European job.
He spoke warmly of ideas to reform the EU enlargement process that are closely associated with the French president, who caused uproar by blocking North Macedonia from opening membership talks.
“We need to discuss whether it is possible to improve this process, for example with the possibility to decide the principle of reversibility,” said Michel, referring to a key French idea that countries could be pushed to the back of the queue if sliding back on democratic reforms.
While some countries, Denmark and the Netherlands, are sympathetic to the French plans, others in central and eastern European countries are wary.
Michel will be only the third person to occupy the job, since the post was created in 2009. Some EU member states complain that being Europe’s summiteer-in-chief is only a part-time job, a charge Michel batted away. He said the European council had grown in importance. “I’m not naive, I know what the obstacles are, but I am hopeful. I feel [there is] stronger political will among the leaders – stronger than is reflected in the media – to take decisions.”