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Conservatives pick Juncker as European Commission candidate

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Conservatives pick Juncker as European Commission candidate

Jean-Claude Juncker - Photo EU Council

(DUBLIN) - European conservatives on Friday picked former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker as their candidate to be the next European Commission president, igniting the centre-right grouping's campaign for European elections in May.

Juncker comfortably defeated Michel Barnier, a French EU commissioner, by 382 votes to 245 at a congress of the European People's Party (EPP) in Dublin.

"I am very proud to be the top candidate of this marvellous People's Party," the 59-year-old told the meeting that was attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel among others

"The internal debate is over, we are now in a position to start our campaign. We have lost a lot of time to the Socialists but we are going to catch up very soon," Juncker said.

The Socialist group in the European Parliament chose their candidate, Martin Schulz from Germany, months ago although he was only officially endorsed last Saturday.

Juncker served as Luxembourg premier for 19 years, making him Europe's longest-serving leader until he was defeated in a general election last year.

He is a true EU insider, having led the eurozone group of finance ministers through the worst of the bloc's crisis and he is a staunch supporter of a federal European state.

For the first time this year, EU member states will have to take into account the result of the European elections on May 22-25 when they pick a president to lead the executive of the European Union, succeeding Jose Manuel Barroso.

Juncker told reporters at a press conference after the vote that he wanted to use the campaign to "better explain Europe."

"I have the impression that there is a large gap between the European leadership, the European Union, and the differing public opinions in our countries.

"Now we have to narrow that gap which does exist in each and every one of our member countries," he said.

He said there was a lack of solidarity in Europe and following years of "necessary" fiscal consolidation, a "growth-orientated policy" was now needed.

The EPP is the largest political grouping in Europe with 74 parties from 39 countries and is the biggest group in the European parliament with 273 members.

Its members currently lead the European Commission with Barroso and the European Council with Herman Van Rompuy.

- Reconciling France and Germany -

Juncker took the helm of small but wealthy Luxembourg in 1995 when Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand were still running Germany and France.

He has had a front-row view of major changes to the European Union, including the launch of the single currency and the subsequent eurozone crisis.

After leading the eurozone group through the worst of the crisis, he found himself facing accusations at home of putting Europe ahead of his nation's domestic problems and subsequently lost a snap election.

Known for his dry sense of humour, Juncker was able through the euro crisis to reconcile the often sharply differing views of France and Germany, the 28-nation bloc's top two economies.

Merkel told reporters in Dublin she believed Juncker would lead a "strong election campaign" for the EPP.

Juncker first joined the Luxembourg government in 1982, when only 28, and has sat at the top table ever since, serving as finance minister and then as premier from 1995, becoming a fixture on the EU scene.

In a farewell address to the European Parliament as eurogroup chief last year, Juncker typically did not mince his words, railing against unnamed, rich northern states that he said had become arrogant, laying down the law to their weaker southern EU partners.

But none of the strains of the euro crisis dampened his faith in a federal European state that could encompass all its peoples and traditions after centuries of conflict and bloodshed.

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