The first-ever popular campaign for European Commission president got under way with Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, winning the nomination of Europe’s center-right parties.
Juncker, 59, who was at the heart of decision-making during the debt crisis in the euro area, will square off against Martin Schulz, 58, a German Social Democrat and current head of the European Parliament, and Guy Verhofstadt, 60, a former Belgian prime minister, who is the Liberal candidate.
“I am allergic to the idea of dividing us between north and south, strong and weak,” Juncker told a convention in Dublin today of the European People’s Party, the political bloc that backed him. “I want to build bridges, create consensus in Europe. We should stop talking Europe down.”
Juncker’s nomination to represent parties including German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform is part of the race to run the commission, the European Union’s executive agency in Brussels.
Headquartered in a star-shaped building in Brussels, the commission manages the EU’s 143 billion-euro ($199 billion) budget, serves as an economic and antitrust watchdog, and proposes and enforces EU laws on everything from trade and transport to food safety and the environment.
For the first time, each pan-European political group is fielding a candidate for the post of commission president, currently held by Jose Barroso of Portugal. EU Parliament elections in late May will determine each man’s strength, kicking off the final political bargaining over the appointment.
New rules require EU national leaders to take the election “into account” when naming the commission president, since that pick will require confirmation by a majority in the next 751-seat Parliament. The new president will take office for a five-year term in November.
Forecasts by PollWatch 2014 show the Socialists winning 209 seats and the center-right 202, leaving each of the two main groups far short of a majority. That may lead to the type of coalition-building common at the national level, potentially bringing in compromise candidates.
As Luxembourg’s prime minister from 1995 to 2013 including eight years chairing meetings of euro finance ministers, Juncker played a role in the creation of the single currency in 1999 and in the emergency political improvisations that kept it from splintering after the crisis broke out in Greece in 2010.
Juncker was nominated by a vote of 382 to 245 over France’s Michel Barnier, 63, currently the commission member in charge of shepherding Europe’s planned banking union. In a political career that has shuffled between Brussels and Paris, Barnier has also served as French foreign minister.