New EU leadership eyes more 'assertive' role for bloc

Brussels (AFP) –


The European Union plans a bigger global role for itself, one of its new chiefs emphasised Friday as the bloc's leadership started changing the guard to a team with firm geopolitical ambitions.

The time has come for the EU to become more "confident, self-assured and assertive" on the world stage, notably by building common defence and security structures, said Charles Michel, taking over as the new European Council president.

His pledge matches the ambition voiced by French President Emmanuel Macron, who argues Europe should have defence capabilities to match its economic heft.

It also echoes the next head of the European Commission, former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, saying she wants to oversee a "geopolitical" EU executive. She takes charge from Sunday, succeeding Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

While the EU's leaders stress they are not looking to replace NATO, their muscular positioning speaks to growing realisation in Europe that a volatile US ally and an encroaching China requires the bloc to rely more on itself.

- Green 'leader' -

The aspiration also feeds into von der Leyen's goal of a zero-carbon future, which will demand a rethinking of economic, technological and societal priorities.

Michel, a 43-year-old former Belgian prime minister, underlined his lockstep with the Commission, saying: "I want Europe to become the global leader of the green movement."

He took over from Donald Tusk as the chief of the European Council, which represents the national leaders of EU member states who have final say over much of the bloc's business.

Tusk, 62 and a former Polish prime minister, was applauded at length during the simple handover ceremony with Michel, during which a small bell was rung and passed over in a symbolic transition of office.

The accolade, which brought Tusk to the brink of tears, reflected his five-year run dousing various EU crises, from Greece's near-exit from the eurozone to jihadist attacks in several countries and a migration crisis.

But Tusk is to remain deeply involved in EU politics. He is to become the the leader of the European family of conservative parties across the bloc, the European People's Party, which is the biggest grouping in the European Parliament.

Michel, in a nod to Tusk's famous bluntness, said that while he too was "open to dialogue," he would be "perhaps more cautious with my tweets -- at least at the beginning -- but I will also speak out when needed."

- Juncker's farewell -

Juncker, meanwhile, had his own, low-key bow-out Friday when he bid farewell to journalists at a daily media briefing usually handled by underlings.

There, he refused to give any advice to von der Leyen on how to approach the job of running the Commission, beyond telling her: "Take care of Europe."

He did say he was "highly concerned" about the erosion of the rule of law in eastern EU members such as Hungary, where judicial and media independence have been subjected to strain.

But that was now the next team's problem. Juncker, known for his insouciance and humour, spent more time recounting a couple of anecdotes from his long career in European politics, including the time decades ago that former US president Bill Clinton and French leader Jacques Chirac offhandedly made clear their services were tapping his mobile phone.

And in his inimitable bon-vivant style, Juncker, 64, brought his farewell to a close with the words, "I'm hungry."