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Charles Michel, Belgium's compromise craftsman

Charles Michel will take the EU Council presidency after a stellar career in Belgium which saw him become a minister at 25 and prime minister at 38
Charles Michel will take the EU Council presidency after a stellar career in Belgium which saw him become a minister at 25 and prime minister at 38 POOL/AFP/File
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Brussels (AFP)

Charles Michel, named on Tuesday to succeed Donald Tusk as head of the European Council, has been Prime Minister of Belgium since October 2014.

Michel is slated to become the second Belgian to take the relatively new EU role, following his Dutch-speaking predecessor Herman Van Rompuy, who was the first to have the job in 2007.

Minister at 25 years old, prime minister at 38, this French-speaking liberal, now 43, has quickly risen up the ranks, after an early arrival in politics in the shadow of his father, the former European Commissioner Louis Michel.

Michel's leap to the European stage comes as the political situation in Belgium is blocked after a very fragmented result in the parliamentary elections last May, making his future uncertain.

For the post of President of the European Council, the main quality is "the ability to be a builder of compromise and the ideal profile is that of these Belgian prime ministers who are skilled, shrewd", said former French Ambassador to the EU, Pierre Sellal.

Michel made his mark and surprised the French-speaking establishment when he agreed five years ago to govern in a coalition with the N-VA, a party that advocates for the independence of Dutch-speaking Flanders.

At the time, he was mocked for leading a "kamikaze" coalition, that would crash and burn quickly.

But the tenacious Michel, a strong believer in compromise, managed to lead this team for more than four years, boasting of creating more than 230,000 jobs after a raft of economic reforms.

The fragile coalition that included two other Flemish parties finally did collapse in December 2018 when the N-VA refused to back the UN migration pact in the run-up to elections. Michel has stayed on as a caretaker premier ever since.

In the 2019 campaign, his image as a "N-VA puppet" dogged him, with anger by francophones circling on his refusal to rein in the populist antics of his former Secretary of State Theo Francken (N-VA), a powerful voice against migrants.

- 'Very determined' -

In the May 26 elections, the same day as the European vote, traditional Belgian parties, including liberal parties, performed poorly.

With big gains by the far right and a more fragmented political landscape, it is unlikely that Michel could be reappointed to Belgium's premiership. No prospect has yet emerged of forming a new coalition.

At the international level, at European summits, Charles Michel has shown himself to be very much in tune with the new French President Emmanuel Macron since 2017, with the same pro-EU sensitivity.

Along with the Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel and Dutch premier Mark Rutte, he has formed a trio of liberal leaders in the Benelux giving an image of unity and convergence on major European issues such as Brexit.

Born on December 21, 1975 in Namur, Michel joined the youth section of the liberal party (known by its French acronym MR) in Jodoigne, his family's stronghold, located along the border between French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders.

At the age of 18, he was elected councillor of the province of Walloon Brabant, the French-speaking Brussels suburbs.

A good Dutch speaker -- a quality that remains rare among Francophone politicians - the young Michel then studied law in Brussels and Amsterdam, and became a lawyer in 1995.

Four years later, he was elected as a federal Member of Parliament and, in October 2000, he was appointed Walloon regional minister in charge of internal affairs and civil service, becoming the youngest minister in the kingdom's history at the age of 25.

From the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2011, Michel was Minister for Cooperation, a position considered secondary.

But it was by conquering the head of the Reform Party in early 2011 that he took on a national stature.

Alongside his father and the "liberal-social" fringe of the party, he succeeded in removing from the presidency the man who had led the party for more than 10 years, Didier Reynders, minister of finance at the time, who had just suffered two election defeats.

"He is a very determined person, ready to take on his responsibilities, even if it means shaking up the established order," said a staff member in 2014.

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