European Council President Charles Michel is confronting one of the trickiest problems yet in the era of pandemic politics: how to cancel an in-person summit with African leaders scheduled for December 9, while insisting that an EU leaders’ summit should be held in person the very next day.
Michel isn’t alone in the bind. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, currently the chairperson of the African Union — the continental union of 55 member countries — recently announced that an important AU summit scheduled for December 5 would be held virtually because of the health situation. That makes it hard to justify traveling to Brussels four days later.
In a bid to help each other tiptoe the treacherous path of summit politics, Ramaphosa sent a confidential letter to Michel and other EU leaders this week, urging that the EU shift the December 9 meeting to a virtual format, according to two officials who have seen it. But while that insulates Ramaphosa from criticism on his own continent, it still leaves Michel in an awkward spot in insisting that the 27 EU heads should still come to Brussels rather than hold a videoconference.
According to officials familiar with Michel’s thinking, the Council president is adamant that EU leaders cannot manage their December agenda, filled with controversial topics, by tele-summit. The leaders are due to discuss a continuing standoff over the bloc’s €1.82 trillion budget-and-recovery plan; the end-game negotiations with the U.K. over a post-Brexit trade deal; more ambitious targets to fight climate change; potential sanctions against Turkey; as well as the ongoing pandemic response. A Dutch journali