Michel's decision to put off the summit set for Thursday and Friday by a week will delay crucial foreign policy decisions. But even more ominously it showed the pandemic continuing to disrupt democracy at the highest levels, and it raised the prospect of further tumult as infections surge across Europe.
At this week's meeting, EU leaders were due to discuss relations with Turkey, including worsening tensions with Greece and Cyprus over energy drilling in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as disagreements between Brussels and Ankara over the 2016 migration deal that helped stem a flow of refugees that had reached crisis levels.
EU leaders were also expected to overcome a deadlock on imposing sanctions against Belarus, which Cyprus has blocked because it also demands tougher measures against Turkey.
Cyprus says it supports sanctioning Belarus over a fraudulent presidential election and rights abuses against protesters. But Nicosia's obstruction of the sanctions has reignited a debate over the requirement for unanimity in EU foreign policymaking, and prompted the foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, to warn that the bloc's credibility is "at stake."
Michel's spokesman, Barend Leyts, announced the delay at just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, saying the president had isolated because a security officer who had been in close contact with him last week tested positive for COVID-19.
Leyts said that Michel, who has continued to travel on official business, is tested routinely, including on Monday when he got a negative result. But Leyts said the confirmed case so close to Michel required isolation under Belgian health guidelines, and the president wanted to be "irreproachable" in following the rules.
Council officials insisted the summit agenda would not change but the delay also heightens the risk that leaders will be distracted by debate over a Commission proposal on migration and asylum policy due to be unveiled Wednesday. Michel was also certain to face second-guessing for postponing rather than asking German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, to take his place, as provided for in the Council’s rules of procedure.
EU leaders have met in person just once since strict lockdown measures were lifted, when they agreed in July on a €1.82 trillion budget and recovery package. Other urgent summits could be needed this fall, including on a potential post-Brexit trade deal with the U.K.
The summit delay was announced after Michel and Merkel spoke by videoconference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After the call, Turkey issued a positive statement expressing support for "a regional conference which will be held with the participation of all parties, including the Turkish Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean" and expressing hope that the EU summit "will bring a breath of fresh air to Turkey-EU relations."
In a bare-bones statement, Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the leaders discussed “bilateral relations” and “the resumption of direct exploratory talks on the delimitation of maritime areas between Greece and Turkey.”
French Europe Minister Clément Beaune said Michel was setting a good example.
“We have to live with the virus; this is part of it,” Beaune told POLITICO during a live interview in Brussels on Tuesday. “This is the case even for leaders. I think it’s a good thing that the rules are the same for everyone. I think that’s what Charles Michel demonstrated.”
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