This week, several European media outlets have reported on European Council President Charles Michel’s remarks denouncing the lack of impartiality by outgoing Commission President von der Leyen and her administration.  

According to Euractiv: “The EU’s treaties explicitly provide for the European Commission to be ‘impartial’, something that the current EU executive has not followed, European Council President Charles Michel told several European media.” 

Yet, unless Charles Michel has been misquoted, these remarks appear misleading. There is absolutely no mention of “impartiality” in the Treaty on European Union (TEU). On the contrary, the Commission is tasked with “promoting the general interest of the Union”. In other words, the Commission is bound by the Treaties to be partial to the interests of the Union. 

It is true that Article 17 of the TEU establishes that the Commission should be “independent” when carrying out its responsibilities. But “independence” and “impartiality” are not synonyms, and should not be confused as such. The Commission should be independent in so far as its members should not take instructions from the governments of their respective Member States. 

It is one thing to believe, as Charles Michel does, that Ursula von der Leyen has further politicised the Commission – a legitimate point of view on a matter of opinion. It is quite different to allege that the Commission is breaching its treaty obligations by citing a non-existing provision of the TEU.

The timing of this attack appears all the more alarming given the impending EU elections. Polling suggests that Eurosceptic and far-right parties stand to gain significant representation in the next European Parliament. One may be left to wonder why Charles Michel would decide to channel Nigel Farage’s rhetoric when the EU’s legitimacy hangs in the balance ahead of the vote. 

This appears a dangerous game not worthy of Michel’s office at the time he’s about to lead European Council discussions over the allocation of the EU’s top jobs for the 2024-2029 cycle. Article 15 TEU lays out the duties of the European Council President, who is essentially tasked with driving consensus within the European Council, where Member States primarily take decisions according to unanimity. If anything, he – not the Commission President – is bound to a principle to impartiality. 

Written by

Prof Alberto Alemanno and Enrique González-O’Brien