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European Union

'Mr. Euro' goes to Brussels

After his European People's Party's election win, Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker will be the European Commission's new president. But what will he stand for as new head of the European Union's most powerful body?

Few people know European politics as well as Jean-Claude Juncker. He attended countless EU council meetings during his 20 years as prime minister of Luxembourg.

He was also president of the Eurogroup for eight years, during the single currency's and possibly also the EU's gravest crisis. Since then, the nickname "Mr. Euro" has stuck.

"The euro and the European Union were in danger. I did the best I could to avert disaster, especially given the limited resources," he recalls.

The crisis may have subsided, but its aftermath is still being felt. Juncker sees unemployment, especially among young people, as Europe's biggest burden at present. The continent's "most urgent task [is] to give young, jobless people - who run the risk of becoming a lost generation - hope and prospects for the future," he has said.

Contradicting himself

Social policies are high on the Christian Democrat's agenda. He believes that speculation and sky-high executive pay must be curbed, while the rights of ordinary workers must be strengthened.

But doesn't this sound more like the Socialists' agenda? After all, it was the conservative and Christian Democrat governments in Europe that pushed for painful austerity programs - and Juncker was one of them.

Euro Group, Brussels, March 2012. Juncker playfully grabs a fellow MEP, who looks unamused, by the throat.

Juncker is known for his sometimes odd humor

If he had not supported the austerity course, he wouldn't have become the EPP's top candidate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel would most likely have thrown a spanner in the works.

So what does Juncker stand for? He's hard to gauge, says Pia Oppel, a journalist with Luxembourg's public radio station 100.7. "He has this knack of saying one thing, then contradicting it and giving the middle-ground version as well - all in one answer," Oppel told DW. He also likes to throw in a bit of dry humor for good measure - in English, German or French.

Less red tape from Brussels

Juncker's critics say this vagueness is his greatest weakness. The position of his main rival during the European elections, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, was much more obviously center-left.

But to become president of the European Commission, one has to be all things to all Europeans. Juncker knows that; the crisis has left its mark. "We must avoid new walls, new lines of demarcation in Europe. I'm allergic to the habit of pitting north against south, small against big, weak against strong. I want to build bridges, bring factions together, become a consensus machine in Europe."

Juncker has also realized that EU citizens are fed up with ill-judged regulation from Brussels - like banning incandescent light bulbs or odd-shaped produce. "Too much nitty-gritty Europe kills the bigger-picture Europe," he said.

According to Oppel, critics who say Juncker dreams of a European super-state are far off the mark, too. "He's against EU integration to the point where nation states disappear - unlike our commissioner, the EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding from Luxembourg. She advocates a 'United States of Europe.' Juncker, on the other hand, stands for the status quo," she told DW.

Tired and lackluster

Francois Holland and Angela Merkel

Heads of state and government of EU member countries opted for Juncker in the end

There was never any doubt that Juncker has a lot of what it takes to be European Commission president. He's a seasoned, multilingual, politically moderate compromise candidate who is acceptable to many governments.

But critics also point to glaring weaknesses. In election debates, he came across as rather lackluster and tired. Plus, he is not well-known outside of EU circles.

He is also regarded, correctly, asvery much part of the Brussels system - a system that extremist and euroskeptic parties across Europe successfully rebelled against. As European Commission president, he'll have to fight strong opposition in many member states, which may want to take back powers previously ceded to Brussels.

Campaign with momentum

For a while, it was by no means clear that Juncker would become the next European Commission president. The heads of government and state could have nominated someone completely different to Europe's most powerful position. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Juncker before the election that there could be no guarantees in this regard.

But these same heads of state and government also understood that the frontrunner's campaign, and the accompanying debate around the Commission leadership position, had increasingly gained momentum over the past month. The candidates have been openly wooing the public with the suggestion that citizens would practically be voting with the Commission on its leadership.

And Juncker warned that, if the governments don't feel bound to one another, European democracy would fall into crisis as the voters would feel betrayed. But perhaps, in saying this, he was thinking of his own career.

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