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Juncker wins green light for 'last chance' team

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Juncker wins green light for 'last chance' team

Jean-Claude Juncker - Photo EC

(STRASBOURG) - The EU's incoming chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker vowed Wednesday to seize the "last chance" for the bloc as his team of commissioners won parliamentary approval to start work on a stalling economy and foreign policy challenges.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg voted by 423 to 209 in favour of Juncker's European Commission, which will have a five-year mandate as the union's executive branch starting on November 1.

But with disillusioned voters fearing a return of the economic crisis in the eurozone, suffering from high unemployment, and increasingly turning to anti-EU parties, Juncker said the new commission had to act now.

"This is the last-chance commission," the former Luxembourg prime minister said in a speech ahead of the vote.

"Either we win back the citizens of Europe, drastically reduce the level of unemployment and give young people a European perspective, or we fail."

Juncker won fewer votes than his Portuguese predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso did for the previous commission, a factor he blamed on the surge of euroscepticism during Barroso's decade in office.

Juncker had risked missing his start date after parliament forced him to reshuffle his team following weeks of gruelling confirmation hearings, but the final members made it through on Monday.

He said he would start work immediately on readying a 300-billion-euro ($380-billion) investment package to boost jobs and growth by Christmas, amid global fears about the continent's economy.

Juncker added that the European Union must do more on issues such as the west Africa Ebola outbreak and the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, although he made no mention of the crisis in Ukraine, which has raised tensions with Russia.

- World's biggest economy -

The Commission includes one member from each of the 28 nations in the EU, a bloc that covers more than 500 million people and taken together represents the world's biggest economy.

Juncker has appointed Dutch former foreign minister Frans Timmermans as his "right hand man" to oversee reforms to the Brussels bureaucracy.

Other key members include Italy's Federica Mogherini as foreign affairs chief, France's former finance minister Pierre Moscovici in the economic affairs role, Britain's Jonathan Hill as head of financial services, and Spain's Miguel Arias Canete as energy chief.

It is the first step in a complete leadership change at the top of the EU, with former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk due to take over in December as president of the European Council, which groups EU heads of state and government.

EU leaders will rubberstamp Juncker's commission at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

The Commission is widely regarded as the most powerful institution in Brussels as it drafts laws, enforces national budgets and is responsible for negotiating trade deals between other countries and the EU.

Juncker promised to take a careful look at a controversial yet central clause in a proposed giant EU-US free trade deal that allows corporations to sue governments.

Speaking in a mixture of French and German with a smattering of English, Juncker also urged lawmakers to back his investment package to boost the economy.

World markets plunged last week on concerns that the fragile eurozone economy was set for a triple-dip recession, sparked by debt-ridden Greece's plans to exit its international bailout early.

"If you give us your support today, we will present the jobs, growth and investment package before Christmas," Juncker said.

But he promised to uphold the EU's budgetary rules and be "tough when we need to be tough", with one of his team's first tasks likely to be dealing with France over its budget deficit.

Several MEPs held up banners saying "No Austerity" during the debate, underscoring the division within the EU between German-led austerity supporters and France and others who want to spend more.

The possibility of Britain leaving the EU in a planned 2017 referendum is another problem Juncker has to face, but he said he was "not prepared to change" EU migration rules in response to demands from London.

Juncker, meanwhile, said his team had to face up to a "more dangerous world".

On the Ebola outbreak he said Brussels only reacted when it "arrived on EU shores. We should have acted much sooner."

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