BRUSSELS – The incoming leader of Europe’s most powerful bureaucracy is a master of the backroom deal — and an outspoken and witty career politician who once advocated the right to lie in times of crisis.
Jean-Claude Juncker, who was prime minister of Luxembourg for almost two decades, was a controversial pick as the 28-nation European Union’s new chief executive, not least because the British government vociferously opposed him. The British tabloid The Sun portrayed him as “the most dangerous man in Europe.”
Yet the 59-year-old conservative politician is set to be elected by overwhelming majority Tuesday as the next president of the European Commission. He will succeed the incumbent, Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal, in November, and assume key responsibilities for steering the world’s biggest economy during the next five years.
The commission is the bloc’s executive arm in charge of drafting EU legislation, overseeing countries’ budgets, policing the EU free trade area and enforcing antitrust action. Its responsibilities range from negotiating a free trade deal with the U.S. to shaping financial regulations and holding gas talks with Russia. The commission’s annual budget totals about 140 billion euros ($190 billion), and pays for agriculture subsidies, infrastructure investments and development aid.
Juncker said the key challenges during his term will be boosting the bloc’s meagre growth and fostering job creation, reforming the EU’s institutions, lessening energy dependence on Russia and keeping an increasingly Euroskeptical Britain from leaving the club.
“I want to move Europe in the right direction,” Juncker told lawmakers last week. “We need policies promoting growth, but not by running higher budget deficits.”
Crucially, analysts say, Juncker must overcome popular disenchantment with the EU, which was manifested in the May elections that handed almost one in three European Parliament seats to Euroskeptic candidates.
“Europe needs to deliver growth and jobs soon to regain the trust of its citizens,” said Guntram Wolff of Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel.
Even Juncker’s supporters don’t claim that he’s charismatic or a visionary leader, but they praise him as a straight talker with a long track record of forging compromises when EU governments and institutions are deadlocked. Coming from a small country of only 500,000 people, he is an advocate of closer European integration, and has never shied away from standing up to even the bloc’s biggest members like Germany.
But Juncker’s opponents, led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, view him as the embodiment of a pro-integration, consensus-favouring, empire-building Brussels clique that won’t return powers to national governments. Critics also question whether his experience at running what would be a smallish province in the large EU countries is sufficient to manage the bloc’s day-to-day operations and the commission’s 33,000 civil servants.
British tabloids also accused Juncker of being a heavy smoker with an alcohol problem. Juncker decried that as a smear campaign and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who spent many late-night business meetings with Juncker, said the Luxembourger was no teetotaller “but I never experienced him drunk.”
Juncker studied law, but quickly entered politics, becoming deputy labour minister at age 28 before taking over his boss’s job two years later. He then became finance minister, and eventually — at age 41 — Luxembourg’s prime minister, a position he held for 18 years until he stumbled over a badly handled spying affair last year.
Juncker, who kept the finance portfolio even as the country’s leader, played a key role in shaping the shared euro currency. He later chaired the meetings of finance ministers that brought the 18-nation eurozone through the 2010-2013 financial crisis that threatened to sink the euro, which would have wreaked havoc in the global economy.
“We have seen the end of the world. We were looking into the abyss,” Juncker told a European Parliament confirmation hearing last week.
During the euro crisis, officials held secret meetings, and Juncker later said he lied to journalists about them, calling it his duty to hide the truth so as not to trigger market panic.
“We had to repair a flying plane that was burning,” he said. “We were in the sky, the plane was burning.”
As leader of the European Commission, he is likely to be less free-wheeling. The commission is accountable to the European Parliament and especially to the EU member states, whose leaders set its policy priorities and budget. National governments also designate their own members of the commission — one per country — and Juncker will only have the latitude to decide which portfolio they hold.
Juncker’s centre-right bloc, the European People’s Party, came in first in the elections for the European Parliament, which led the EU’s national leaders to eventually nominate him as their candidate for the commission. Only Britain and Hungary dissented.
One of Juncker’s assets on the European level is his ability to switch with ease between the bloc’s three most important languages — English, French and German.
Seeking the approval of European Parliament lawmakers, Juncker underwent six hearings last week — and appeared to excel at telling each political group some of what it wanted to hear, while being prudent not to provide too many specifics that might tie his hands later on.
When it came to facing the caucus of euroskeptics that includes the United Kingdom Independence Party, which topped the European Parliament elections in Britain, Juncker was at his most charming and ironic.
Head-on, he told the lawmakers he will do his utmost to restore people’s trust in Europe during his mandate to “make sure that next time you are less numerous.” When UKIP leader Nigel Farage mentioned the drinking and smoking allegations, Juncker had the laughs on his side by quickly turning to Farage and asking, “do you have a cigarette for me?”
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