Day of long goodbyes in Brussels as Tusk and Juncker depart

Jokes and high emotion as EU leaders step down after five turbulent years

Outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk: A good film, he joked, is one “that starts with an earthquake and builds up to a climax”. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk: A good film, he joked, is one “that starts with an earthquake and builds up to a climax”. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

 

Donald Tusk channelled Alfred Hitchcock in his farewell to hundreds of European Council staff and journalists in the vast atrium of the Justus Lipsius building on Friday. A good film, he joked, like his experience as president of the European Council, is one “that starts with an earthquake and builds up to a climax”.

His five turbulent years, he complained, encompassed the Greek and migrant crises, the Ukraine and then Brexit. Some would include the election of Donald Trump in that list of crises, he said, but “that’s only half true”.

Handing over the baton – Tusk is also a strong long-distance runner – to his successor, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, the outgoing president spoke above all of the challenge of preserving the unity of the union and concluded to rapturous applause.

Newly appointed European Council president Charles Michel with Donald Tusk. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images
Newly appointed European Council president Charles Michel with Donald Tusk. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Michel promised to follow in the notoriously outspoken Tusk’s footsteps but said that he would be “more cautious in my tweets . . . at least at the beginning.”

Although the changing of the guard in the council and European Commission does not happen officially until Sunday, Friday was a day of long goodbyes. Jean Claude Juncker, 30 years at the councils of the union as a Luxembourg minister, and latterly as president of the commission, followed up across the road in the Berlaymont a few minutes later with an emotional address to a packed press room.

Only, however, after we heard a saga-length poem from the departing chief spokeswoman Mina Andreeva, whose unfortunate rhyming and scansion, one unkind hack remarked, had all the colour of a European directive.

Wiretaps

Juncker, who is expected to testify in a Luxembourg court in the spring about his own role in allegedly authorising an illegal wiretap, reminisced about how a phone conversation he had with Bill Clinton in the middle of the night many years ago had been quoted at him verbatim a few hours later by French president Jacques Chirac.

“Thanks for listening in, mon ami. Turns out, it’s not always the US listening in on your phone calls, “ Juncker observed.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker during his last press conference. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker during his last press conference. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

He spoke of his relief that he would be leaving his job ahead of Brexit. “In a way, I am not unhappy about this because it breaks my heart to see a member of our union leave its midst”– and that he regretted that he had not been able to make Luxembourgish an official language of the EU.

Ahead of his final working day, Juncker also edited the daily “playbook” of the Politico website, where he listed some of his regrets, including failing to achieve the reunification of Cyprus, a recent decision by the European Council not to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, and his inability to achieve a new partnership agreement with Switzerland.

Asked who he thought would win an ideological battle within his EPP centre-right political family over Europe’s future – Donald Tusk, its new president and a champion of liberal democracy; or Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a prophet of illiberal democracy – Juncker replied curtly: “Tusk.” It was clear his patience was running out.

After taking a few questions, he announced that he had had enough.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

And that was it, off to lunch. A very long lunch, otherwise known as retirement.

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