One of the most valuable positions in the EU bureaucracy will remain vacant, possibly for weeks or months, while European Council President Charles Michel ponders his election for the next Secretary General of the Council of the EU.
A vacancy in such a coveted post is highly unusual and reflects the rapid departure of outgoing Secretary-General Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen. At the end of March, the Danish diplomat announced his move to the top official position in his home country’s foreign ministry and is expected to start his new job on May 1st.
Tranholm-Mikkelsen has held the post at the head of the Council bureaucracy since 2015 and his departure comes more than three years before his second five-year contract expires on 1 July 2025.
There is no deputy general secretary to interfere with Tranholm-Mikkelsen pending the appointment of a permanent successor. According to five diplomats and officials, two senior council officials will temporarily replace him. Director General for General and Institutional Policy Didier Seeuws will take over the political aspects of his work – including the participation of EU leaders in European Council meetings. And the head of Organizational Development and Services, William Shapcott, will take on the administrative portion of the post.
An email announcing the interim solution is expected on Friday, while Michel continues to consult with EU leaders to find a long-term successor to Tranholm-Mikkelsen, a former ambassador to the EU and China.
The Dane is known as a cool and efficient operator, so much so that some diplomats have dubbed him a “robot”. The council held a farewell event for him on Thursday, which was attended by many officials in person and via video link.
According to a source at the event, Michel said: “It’s no exaggeration to say he’s helped tackle our Union’s biggest challenges in recent years… the end of the financial crisis, the migration crisis, Brexit, the COVID pandemic , and now the war in Ukraine.”
The selection of As with all top jobs in Brussels, Tranholm-Mikkelsen’s successor has many factors to consider, including experience, gender and geography. Some officials believe it will be finalized before a special European Council meeting at the end of May.
Speculation about who will get the job is a hot topic around coffee machines in the Council and at EU embassies, where diplomats and officials are gathering again after COVID restrictions have eased.
Michel holds his cards very close to his chest, but among the names floating around are those of several women.
One of the most frequently mentioned candidates is Luminița Odobescu, a former Romanian ambassador to the EU who recently left Brussels to work with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. Well-prepared and well-liked by the EU institutions, she also served as President of a Brussels group of Francophone ambassadors. That could be a plus as she would have to work closely with Michel, a Belgian from the country’s French-speaking community who is said to be an ally of French President Emmanuel Macron.
Maltese Ambassador to the EU, Marlene Bonnici, who took up the post in July 2020 after having held the same post between July 2012 and July 2018, is another potential candidate who has the extensive experience required for the post.
Among the men, the name of French EU Ambassador Philippe Léglise-Costa 2020 was widely known before it was clear Tranholm-Mikkelsen would get a second term. Some officials say it would be difficult for Michel not to give the job Léglise-Costa this time, if Macron insists, also because the French ambassador is one of the city’s most admired diplomats.
However, the appointment of Léglise-Costa could provoke complaints from officials and diplomats that France’s already considerable power in Brussels has been further expanded.
Another potential male candidate is the Dutch ambassador to the EU, Robert de Groot, who is also widely admired by peers and has the necessary cool negotiating skills. However, some diplomats say that would mean too much Benelux at the helm of the Council, as Michel is President of the European Council and has a number of close associates who are also Belgian.
The press offices of the Council of the EU and the European Council have not responded to a request for comment on this article.
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