BRUSSELS -- The two men who have personified the European Union across the world in recent years are bowing out on Friday.
As of Sunday, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will be replaced by Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen at the head of the EU executive, and Belgium’s Charles Michel will succeed Donald Tusk as EU Council president and chair the summits of EU leaders.
With von der Leyen it is the first time the EU will have a woman in such a leadership role.
Tusk and Michel warmly hugged at EU headquarters during the handover ceremony from the Polish Christian Democrat to the free-market liberal former Belgian prime minister.
Both Tusk and Juncker have guided the EU through momentous times over the past half decade, with Greece threatening to fall out of the euro currency and the United Kingdom deciding to leave the bloc.
Tusk compared it to an Alfred Hitchcock suspense movie. “You may remember his short recipe for a good thriller. He said ‘I want a film that begins with an earthquake and works up to a climax’.”
Michel called Tusk “a true fighter for Europe,” and he will have to inherit that spirit since challenges ahead look just as daunting.
Even if Brexit finally does go ahead on Jan. 31, 2020, it will spawn a challenge just as daunting: broker a new trade agreement with London.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants it to be done by the end of the year, which would amount to a herculean task considering similar trade agreements with other nations have taken sometimes five years or more.
Momentum is building to face the challenge of climate change and von der Leyen has said it will be a top priority for her.
She will find a good partner in Michel.
“I want Europe to become global leader of the Green Economy with jobs, innovation and a high quality of life,” the new Council President said.
Another ceremony is set for Sunday, when the new team officially starts its term.