Michael Clauß – the man for the long haul

Ambassador Michael Clauss, Permanent Representative of Germany to the European Union.

It’s nine in the morning, but Michael Clauß kindly declines a cup of coffee. He already had two breakfast appointments, says the German EU ambassador, so his caffeine needs are covered. The next appointment is already scheduled, and it will take Clauß to the so-called confessional. The cabinet of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is once again sounding out in small groups what concerns the member states have about the new sanctions against Russia.

Brussels’ political scene goes on its obligatory summer break in August, despite war and crises. Clauß, however, cannot let it end. In addition to the sanctions, the Permanent Representatives of the EU states must also discuss the Commission’s new gas emergency plan in a fast-track procedure before the energy ministers deal with it next Tuesday.

Crisis is now piling up on crisis, and Clauß is right in the middle of the EU’s political efforts to manage it. The leaders negotiate the broad lines among themselves – von der Leyen, Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron and their sherpas. But for preparation and implementation, they need Coreper, the Committee of Permanent Representatives. The Brussels governors examine and decide on the sanctions packages in a rush and bend over the draft conclusions for the European Councils until the very most has been consented to. Otherwise, the heads of state and government would never get to bed on summit nights.

Clauß knows the EU business like no one else. The 60-year-old has managed Germany’s past two Council presidencies, in 2020 as ambassador and in 2007 as deputy head of department at the Federal Foreign Office. As head of the German Convention Secretariat, he accompanied the process of drafting a European constitution from its start in 2002 to its bitter end – the rejection of the referenda in France and the Netherlands. Because of his European expertise, the then State Secretary Gunter Pleuger had previously brought the diplomat to him, first as a personal advisor, then as head of the Office of the State Secretaries.

Brussels instead of Freetown

However, Clauß imagined things quite differently. After his first years in the foreign office, he was supposed to become ambassador to Sierra Leone. “My wife and I found the adventure very appealing,” he says. A few hours before his departure, however, there was a coup in the West African country, and the German mission in the capital, Freetown, had to be evacuated. So another use had to be found for Clauß – as an embassy counselor at the EU representation. “The fact that I was sent to Brussels instead was pure coincidence,” he says.

At first, Clauß was not particularly enthusiastic about it. He knew Belgium from his school days, and his father was a Bundeswehr officer stationed for a time at the NATO High Command in Mons. Clauß, however, wanted to experience distant countries. That was one of the reasons why, after two years as a regular soldier, he decided to join the diplomatic service – and not to join the army, where his father had made it to the rank of four-star general.

But it ended up being Brussels instead of Freetown. This was followed by 14 years at the headquarters in Werderscher Markt, most recently as Head of the European Department. In 2013, it was time for a change of scenery, says Clauß: He became ambassador to China. “It’s healing and helpful to look at things from the outside,” he says. “Looking from Beijing, Brussels is not the navel of the world.” Compared to the enormous dynamism in China, he says, processes in Europe are often cumbersome and bureaucratic.

Door to a world apart

It is difficult for foreigners to look behind the curtains of the Chinese system in Beijing. Contact with Western diplomats is unwelcome for CP cadres. His wife, however, gave Clauß insights that he otherwise would have missed. Through her, he gained access to the Chinese elite, members of the so-called Revolutionary Families: sons, daughters and grandchildren of Mao’s former comrades-in-arms, without an official party position but influential and well-informed nonetheless. Many of them were educated at elite US universities and therefore speak English very well.

“The women met every now and then on weekends, and we men just tagged along,” Clauß says. In this context, it was possible to speak quite openly with each other. “That opened the door for me to a shielded world. And it helped to put the official information in perspective.”

Since then, he no longer harbors any illusions about how the system works or its claim to power. “China derives great self-confidence from its development and is questioning our political and social system,” he says. The CCP is becoming increasingly repressive and is trying to reshape the international order to its liking. For example, the Belt and Road Initiative would serve to establish a hierarchical relationship with other states, with Beijing at the top. “In Europe, it has not been seen for a long time that China is a systemic rival. It was important for me to convey here in Brussels that we need to shed this naiveté.”

By now, that message has sunk in. Clauß contributed to it after his transfer to Brussels in 2018, hand in hand with other China aficionados like Green Party MEP Reinhard Bütikofer. Meanwhile, the EU has launched a €300 billion counterpart to the New Silk Road. “Global Gateway has the potential to be a real alternative,” Clauß says. “But now we have to move forward, taking a value-based approach, but also a realistic one, to involve as many countries as possible.”

Appreciated across party lines

In Berlin, the diplomat is held in high esteem across party lines for his competence and objectivity, and the government coalition is also keeping him on board. Clauß has no party affiliation, something that is incompatible with his civil servant ethos. He tries to feed the insights gained in Brussels into the German government’s European policy coordination processes, for example, regarding the majority ratios in the Council and the European Parliament.

Sometimes he has to use his connections in the ministries and the chancellor’s office when the ministries find it difficult to formulate a coordinated position. The “German Vote” is proverbial in Brussels, but during Clauß’s tenure, Germany has only once had to abstain from voting due to a lack of unity in the Council – at the most recent meeting of interior ministers.

To shake off the stress, Clauß goes running every weekend for many, many kilometers, and sometimes he even gets on his racing bicycle. During the week, he tries to keep an extra date in his calendar free for it. “I’m a long-distance runner, it’s a real passion,” he says. He needs the athletic balance for physical health but also for mental hygiene.

Clauß has long since made peace with the fact that his career has taken him to the EU’s jungle of regulations instead of the African rainforest. “Brussels may not be as exotic,” he says, “but it’s also adventurous here at times.” Till Hoppe


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