Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, the secretary-general of the Council of the EU, resigned on Wednesday to accept a post as head of the foreign ministry in Denmark, his home country.
The veteran Danish diplomat has served as the Council’s top bureaucrat since July 1, 2015. In 2020, he was reappointed for a second term that was to run through July 1, 2025.
In a letter to Council staff seen by POLITICO, Tranholm-Mikkelsen wrote: “I have been offered to go back to the country I know best and become the Permanent Secretary of State of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I expect to take up my new position on 1 May 2022.”
The resignation came as a surprise to many colleagues and coworkers — including European Council President Charles Michel, who must now contemplate a swift transition as the EU is wrestling with an array of complicated issues, particularly sanctions policy and other measures related to the war in Ukraine and its reverberations across Europe’s economy.
In his letter, Tranholm-Mikkelsen, who served as Danish ambassador to the EU and before that as ambassador to China, told colleagues that he accepted this new job after almost seven years in office because “for me personally it constitutes a real chance. I started in that service 30 years ago, and the offer now to head it is an opportunity I just cannot turn down.”
As the head of the Council’s general secretariat, Tranholm-Mikkelsen faced the always difficult challenge of helping to steer the EU’s member countries — either their heads of state and government, or their ministers and ambassadors — toward the unanimity that is required for most major decisions.
Among other tasks, the general secretariat is responsible for helping to support and prepare meetings of the European Council, the collective of EU heads of state and government, where the most important decisions are taken. The general secretariat also provides a permanent infrastructure for the presidency of the Council of the EU, which passes to a different member country every six months.
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod announced the appointment in a press release, saying: “Jeppe is an internationally recognized top diplomat with an impressive international network at the highest level.” Citing Tranholm-Mikkelsen’s prior experience in the EU, in the Danish prime minister’s office, and in the foreign service, Kofod stated: “This is important at a time when Denmark must navigate increasingly difficult foreign and security policy waters.”
Shoes to fill
In contrast to the European Commission’s 30,000-strong civil service, the Council employs about 3,000 people, and Michel himself has a team of just a few dozen. The general secretariat also plays a crucial role in the regular meetings of EU ambassadors (known as Coreper), which during the pandemic and the war have increased in frequency from once or twice a week to often three per week. Coreper prepares the meetings of ministers in all the different Council formations and also is where member states discuss sanctions.
Diplomats said it would not be easy to find a replacement, especially at short notice.
Tranholm-Mikkelsen was a close, trusted adviser to former European Council President Donald Tusk. But according to some diplomats, Tranholm-Mikkelsen was not as close with Michel, the current president who is a former Belgian prime minister and works with a very tight-knit inner circle.
Still, officials with direct knowledge of the relationship said that Michel highly respected Tranholm-Mikkelsen and they noted that the Dane was reappointed with Michel’s support in April 2020 at the height of the coronavirus emergency.
“Jeppe has both a good political nose and is a very effective administrator,” said a diplomat who served with him in Brussels. “As secretary-general, you need to be clear-headed. You need to be tough. But you also have to be highly aware and have your attention switched on to the concerns of the member states and not just the bigger member states. Jeppe was exceptionally good at that.”
Adding further pressure to filling the role is the fact that there is no deputy secretary-general in the Council’s organizational structure, meaning there is no obvious temporary replacement.
Among the potential successors stirring speculation is the French ambassador to the EU, Philippe Léglise-Costa. Yet Paris is already seen as very close to Michel as well as to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and as the main country calling the shots at the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm.
As France currently holds the rotating Council of the EU presidency, such a move could be viewed as giving Paris too much control. Léglise-Costa was mentioned as a potential replacement for Tranholm-Mikkelsen in 2020 before it was clear he would be getting a second term.
Another possible candidate is the Dutch ambassador to the EU, Robert de Groot, who is also widely admired by colleagues and viewed as having the necessary cool-headed negotiating skills. De Groot would also have the plus of not coming from a large country.
But candidates from big countries are not automatically disqualified.
Tranholm-Mikkelsen’s predecessor was Uwe Corsepius, who served as an adviser to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Corsepius replaced a former French ambassador to the EU, Pierre de Boissieu. Diplomats noted that Corsepius, who served as secretary-general from 2011 to 2015, demonstrated that advisers to EU heads of state and government could also be considered for the job.
When Michel picks someone to succeed Tranholm-Mikkelsen, that person would need the endorsement of the heads of state or government at a summit. The Council of the EU would then formally make the appointment, in accordance with Article 240 (2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.