Ursula von der Leyen has replaced Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. For more than 20 years, Juncker was at the forefront of European politics.
First as finance minister and prime minister of his home country Luxembourg, then as chairman of states in favor of the euro and, finally, as head of the EU’s political administration. Now, at 65, Juncker plans to retire from public life.
In his five years as European Commission president, Juncker was tasked with navigating a number of complex challenges: Greece had to be saved from bankruptcy and the eurozone stabilized and the effects of the global financial crisis and growing unemployment had to be combated.
The influx of migration along the Balkan route and across the Mediterranean also weighed heavy on the EU. Juncker, along with a number of willing EU member states, was able to strike a deal with Turkey and Libya to significantly drive down migration numbers.
Despite that effort, however, the issue was not entirely resolved by the end of his term in office. Juncker never tired of championing solidarity among member states, as well as with many of the African countries from which migrants arrived.
Juncker embraced friends and political foes alike and was not sparing with his blandishments. His kisses and hugs for presidents, chancellors and potentates became the stuff of legend in Brussels. And his unique sense of humor caused confusion at times.
Juncker, the son of a steelworker who was forced into the service of the Nazi’s during the Second World War, always saw the European project as one of establishing peace.
Juncker also understood how to prevent US President Donald Trump from slapping punitive tariffs on European automakers during the new trade conflict — at least temporarily.
Juncker sees Brexit, which has since been delayed until January 2020, as his single biggest political failure. Today, he says he should have been far more active ahead of the referendum, adding that it was “a big mistake” to follow the advice of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who told him not to get involved.
Juncker’s proposal to combine the EU Commission presidency and that of the European Council were greeted with pained smiles from the powerful heads of state and government in the Council.
Of course, Juncker wished his replacement, Ursula von der Leyen, all the best. “But I am not giving any advice, especially in public,” he said with a grin at his last EU summit, the 148th of his career.
Deutshe Welle / ABC Flash Point News 2019.