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Charles Michel spokesperson to quit

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BRUSSELS — Barend Leyts, the spokesperson for European Council President Charles Michel, is leaving his job.

Leyts is departing to become director of communications for Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, the European Council said Friday in a release. POLITICO first reported the move. Ecaterina Casinge, the head of cabinet for Moldovan President Maia Sandu, will replace Leyts in August.

Interestingly, Casinge doesn’t come from Michel’s political family, the centrist Renew Europe, hailing instead from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). She previously worked for both an EPP European Parliament member, Siegfried Mureșan, as well as for the EPP’s pan-EU organization.

“I believe she has it all,” Mureșan, who is Romanian, told POLITICO. “Ecaterina has really all the credentials that she needs.”

And he shrugged off the differing political origins of Casinge and her soon-to-be boss: “Political affiliations should neither be an advantage nor a disadvantage.”

The change is a notable one for Michel, as he and Leyts go back nearly a decade.

Leyts started working for Michel in October 2014, becoming the politician’s Dutch-language spokesperson just as Michel became Belgian prime minister. Leyts then followed Michel to the European Council in December 2019, when Michel was chosen to run the institution that gathers all 27 EU leaders to set the bloc’s priorities.

Leyts declined to comment.

The move comes just ahead of the European elections next June and before Belgium takes over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in January.

It also follows an announcement that De Croo’s current communications director, Tom Meulenbergs, will leave for the private sector “at the end of August.” Meulenbergs has been a vital member of De Croo’s entourage for years, playing a key role in building the politician’s profile. The work helped elevate De Croo to high office in 2020 despite the fact that his party, Open VLD, was not Belgium’s largest after the national elections in 2019.

De Croo’s future is uncertain at the moment. Belgium will hold its own elections in 2024 and it’s unclear whether the current seven-party coalition will retain enough parliamentary seats to continue, as several of the parties have dropped in the polls. For his part, De Croo has expressed interest in staying on as prime minister after the elections.

Diplomats have also speculated that De Croo could be a candidate to lead one of the EU institutions after next year’s European elections.

During his time at the European Council, Leyts dealt with considerable media scrutiny of his boss, Michel. There was critical coverage in publications like POLITICO and Le Monde, as well as Sofagate — a diplomatic faux-pas that fueled allegations of sexism and dissension within the EU after Michel snagged a chair next to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leaving European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen relegated to a nearby couch.

The incident was reflective of broader tensions that officials say have long simmered between Michel and von der Leyen during Leyts’ tenure.

Prior to his time in politics, Leyts was a reporter for Belgian broadcaster VTM, where he covered a wide region of issues, including Belgian politics and Belgian royalty. 

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