Juncker to Steer EU Future With U.K. Concerned About Past

Jean-Claude Juncker, nominated for president of the European Commission, has been a constant presence in the continent’s modern history. Now he has to show he can shape its future.

The leader of Luxembourg for almost 19 years, Juncker was a central player in the euro’s creation and then its defense, when the sovereign debt crisis threatened to break apart the currency union. European Union leaders voted 26 to two yesterday to make him their choice to head the bloc’s executive arm over opposition from the U.K. and Hungary.

Juncker, a 59-year-old career politician who still needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament, takes over as national leaders wrestle for ways to bolster the economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said the EU needs a new face to lead its renewal.

In his latest incarnation, Juncker headed the Christian Democratic ticket in last month’s European Parliament elections. After the group came in first in the May 22-25 ballot, most government heads rallied around Juncker.

“I can hardly imagine a better person for the job,” Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said as the summit of EU leaders was getting under way.

Spying Scandal

A fluent speaker of French, German and English, Juncker was Europe’s longest-serving leader when he was forced out of the Luxembourg premier’s office last year after an election triggered when the country’s parliament held him “politically responsible” for a spying scandal.

As one of six founding members of the EU in the 1950s, Luxembourg has traditionally been a proponent of greater integration -- a stance Juncker maintained. Cameron argues that position makes him an unsuitable commission chief at a time when Britain is seeking to scale back the EU’s clout through renegotiation.

“Jean-Claude Juncker has been at the heart of the project to increase the power of Brussels and reduce the power of nation states for his entire working life,” Cameron said yesterday. “He’s not the right person to take this organization forward.”

Cameron’s unsuccessful campaign to stop Juncker was accompanied for weeks by U.K. news reports critical of the Luxembourger. They culminated in front page reports yesterday in newspapers including the Daily Telegraph citing an unnamed “European diplomat” as saying that EU leaders had discussed concerns about Juncker’s “drinking habits.” An official at Juncker’s Brussels office declined to comment on the reports.

Juncker, as a candidate for the commission presidency, said that he wants the U.K. to stay in the bloc and pledged to seek a “fair deal” for the country.

Red Line

In a dual role as chairman of meetings of euro-area finance ministers, Juncker steered negotiations -- often through the night -- on aid for distressed nations such as Greece, which had lost access to bond markets in early 2010.

Helping bridge the divide between Europe’s most-credit-worthy and least-credit-worthy governments, he occasionally angered both groups. Early in the turmoil, he ruffled German feathers by promoting the idea of debt sharing among euro-area nations -- a red line for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

At another point, Juncker lied about an unannounced meeting of European finance officials to discuss Greece and said he did so to prevent “more harm” on financial markets.

Juncker will be responsive to both EU leaders and European Parliament lawmakers, Merkel told reporters after his nomination, saying that he brings “European experience” to the job.

“I am proud and honored” to receive the nomination, Juncker said on Twitter.

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