Juncker: The veteran EU insider loathed by Britain

Jean-Claude Juncker's campaign tour bus [Photo: European People's Party/Flickr]

Jean-Claude Juncker's campaign tour bus. [European People's Party/Flickr]

Jean-Claude Juncker, named on Friday as the next head of the European Commission, is a veteran EU insider and arch-pragmatist with a love of a drink and a dry sense of humour.

The former prime minister of Luxembourg faced down fierce opposition from Britain to secure support from other European leaders to lead the EU’s executive arm. 

Friday’s EU summit was a fractious affair, as British Prime Minister David Cameron forced an unprecedented vote on Juncker’s nomination.

“He is not the right person to take this organisation forward,” Cameron insisted on Friday, after weeks of arguing that Juncker is too much of a federalist for the job and won’t bring much-needed reform.

Several European countries initially agreed with Cameron, but have come round to the idea of a Juncker presidency.

Juncker, the son of a metal worker, led Luxembourg for 19 years, and made his mark in Brussels during the eurozone crisis when he was head of the eurogroup of finance ministers for eight years up to 2013.

The 59-year-old helped steer the single currency bloc through a debt crisis that nearly wrecked it, playing a key role in negotiating the hardline programmes imposed in return for EU and International Monetary Fund debt bailouts in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.

But he also backed a change of tack, to focus more on growth, once the crisis eased in late 2012.

Juncker was also known for his ability to reconcile the often sharply differing views of France and Germany, the bloc’s top two economies.

“When I want to speak in French, I think in German; when I want to speak in German, I think in French, with the result that I am totally incomprehensible,” he once joked.

He has “two fatal flaws – he has an opinion and he is not afraid to share it”, said one European official.

Juncker was backed for the Commission post by the centre-right European People’s Party, the largest single group in the new assembly, allowing its candidate to claim the Commission job by right.

But David Cameron dislikes that system, and fears that Juncker is unlikely to promote reforms which could convince British voters to remain inside the EU. The British Prime Minister has vowed to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in 2017 if he wins next year’s general election.

Juncker was born in 1954 in a Europe still struggling to rise from the wreckage of World War II, when his father was press-ganged into Germany’s Wermacht.

Juncker senior was a strong influence on his son, not least for his experiences as a metal worker and union member.

A smoker and a lover of life’s finer things – particularly cognac – Juncker holds firmly to the political right.

But true to his form as a pragmatic operator, he is suspicious of the idea that free market economics can solve all problems.

“Juncker, he is the most socialist Christian Democrat there is,” longtime Greens leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit once said of his longstanding foe.

But perhaps the biggest test of his political flexibility will be whether he can work with Britain in the aftermath of such a public row.


UK Prime Minister David Cameron has waged a campaign to block the former Luxembourg Prime Minister and EU veteran Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next President of the European Commission.

Juncker is seen as the legitimate candidate for the post because he campaigned during the European elections as the leading figure of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), which won the largest number of seats in Parliament.

But Cameron refuses this logic, saying Juncker's candidacy did not appear on the ballot papersat the May election.

He insisted that EU heads of states and government take a vote on the matter during an EU summit on 27 June, knowing he does not have a blocking minority.

Cameron has promised Britons an in/out referendum on Britain's EU membership if he is re-elected in 2015 and said he would push the vote forward if Juncker was appointed.