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Juncker, doyen of European leaders, back at Eurogroup helm

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(BRUSSELS) - Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker wanted the big ceremonial job of Europe's first full-time president, the chance to go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama in global summits.

He had to content himself with being granted on Monday a fresh, 30-month mandate as Eurogroup head, where he will help guide the 16 countries that share the euro out of a debilitating debt crisis.

That job may prove the more challenging task -- not least because plugging a Greek debt abyss will be just one of his challenges.

The 55-year-old described himself as "a mediator of compromise" when pitching for the plum Brussels post landed by Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy late last year.

He will need those qualities while trying to eke out agreement on economic policy lines, with a twin-track Europe now wrestling with how to kickstart a twin-track inner eurozone after recession laid bare huge imbalances among member states' economies.

But Juncker, additionally his country's treasury minister, also faces growing pressure from European Union peers to relax Luxembourg's banking secrecy laws as the bloc tries to recover every last penny of lost tax revenue following vast crisis overspends.

Luxembourg does, of course, have a proud European record. It was one of the founding states of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 and also hosts the European courts and auditors.

The inveterate smoker first entered government as a fresh-faced 28-year-old lawyer in 1982, a member of the conservative Christian Social People's Party.

Since then, he has stuck with the party and the party has remained in power.

He entered government as employment minister in 1984 and took up the finance portfolio five years later, a post he only relinquished last year.

In January 1995, Juncker was propelled to the premiership, where he has remained ever since.

He shares his party's strongly pro-EU stance, considering the interests of his country to be inextricably linked to a peaceful Europe, forged by conflict such as the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge fought in the French-Belgian-Luxembourg border region.

His father was forcibly recruited by the Wermacht in World War II, and Juncker, born in 1954, is a firm believer that "nothing European should be foreign to us."

He has said: "If our generation does not succeed in making European integration irreversible who can say that, in 20 or 30 years, another Hitler or another Stalin couldn't come to power."

Over the years 'Mr Good Offices' has earned a reputation for untying some Gordian European knots.

In 1991 he proposed the British opt-out from the euro which allowed the EU's Maastricht Treaty to be agreed.

The diplomatic mask has dropped occasionally, though never the pro-European stance.

In 2005 he accused then British PM Tony Blair of trying to reduce the bloc to little more than a free-trade zone.

"I have better friendships with others than the British prime minister," he remarked drily.

No fan of diplobabble, Juncker is a master of the ironic bon mot.

Amid an impasse in negotiations on the EU's doomed constitutional project he declared: "The more Europe expands, the more people become narrow-minded."

Once a firm friend of Paris and Berlin under previous leaderships, and regularly used as a friendly mediator between them, Juncker has had his run-ins with the two capitals.

A main bone of contention was the decision last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to put Luxembourg on a 'grey list' of countries considered not to be fully implementing international tax standards.

The list was made public at a meeting of G20 countries in London after Germany and France lobbied strongly for a crackdown on tax havens.

Luxembourg was later removed from the list after signing agreements to exchange information.

France and others also criticised him for being too slow and passive, as Eurogroup head, as the financial crisis that first hit home in 2008 unfolded.

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