WASHINGTON — EU leaders in Washington for a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday had an important objective: projecting a united front after days of mixed messages on the Israel crisis. But even before the meeting started, the divides were on full display.
European Council President Charles Michel, who is visiting the White House for the first time, will hold a bilateral meeting with Biden in the Oval Office ahead of the EU-U.S. summit. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen will instead join the U.S. leader for a scheduled walk through the Rose Garden after the meeting.
The arrangement speaks to an increasingly problematic issue facing the EU as it engages internationally — working out who speaks for Europe on foreign policy.
Von der Leyen, who heads the EU executive, and Michel, the former Belgian prime minister who leads the European Council representing the bloc’s 27 national governments — have a notoriously tetchy relationship.
The latest breakdown came last week when von der Leyen did not consult with Michel or EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell before a trip to Israel — a visit that elicited criticism from some EU countries who were dismayed that the Commission president did not publicly call on Israel to respect international law as it responds to the Hamas attack.
Michel and Borrell, who have a strong working relationship, are due to travel to Egypt for this weekend’s peace summit in Cairo to represent the EU as the bloc tries to up its outreach to Arab countries. Borell is expected to join Michel in the Oval Office, as is U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Michel convened a meeting of the EU’s 27 leaders earlier this week in an effort to put forward a coherent policy on Israel among deep divisions within the bloc.
Though Michel is formally charged with representing the EU on the global stage, it is von der Leyen who has the deeper relationship with the Biden administration, a link solidified during the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 when the Commission chief and her team worked closely with the White House on coordinating sanctions. She has met Biden several times.
In contrast, Friday’s meeting will be Michel’s first bilateral with the U.S. president in the White House since he became the head of the European Council more than four years ago.
Friday’s summit will focus on foreign policy after negotiators failed to land a deal on steel and aluminum tariffs and an agreement on critical materials ahead of the gathering.
Divisions between von der Leyen and Michel are not confined to the current crisis in the Middle East. Michel previously took issue with von der Leyen’s stance on China, amid suspicions that the EU’s executive was overly swayed by the position of the Biden administration.
Two officials involved with preparations for the summit insisted that Friday’s communique to be released after the summit will show little difference between the EU and the U.S. position on Israel.