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EU's Juncker wins approval with 'grand coalition' program

By Tom Körkemeier

STRASBOURG, France - Jean-Claude Juncker won broad endorsement from the European Parliament on Tuesday to be the next head of the executive European Commission after setting out a "grand coalition" investment program to help revive Europe's economy.

Belying his reputation as a grey back-room fixer, Juncker spoke with passion and fire of his ambition to "reindustrialize" Europe and put the European Union's 25 million unemployed, many of them young, back into work.

He promised a 300 billion euro ($409 billion) public-private investment program over the next three years, combining existing and perhaps augmented resources from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank with private sector funds, to build energy, transport and broadband networks and industry clusters.

"We need a reindustrialization of Europe," the 59-year-old former Luxembourg prime minister said. He won support from the Socialists and Liberals as well as his own center-right bloc, the largest in the EU legislature.

The position Juncker assumes is the most powerful in the EU. The Commission proposes and enforces laws for 500 million Europeans, from Ireland in the West to Lithuania in the East.

Juncker acknowledged many Europeans had lost confidence in the EU and said only economic results and full employment, not endless debate over EU institutions, would restore their trust.

Euroskeptic parties topped May European Parliament elections in France and Britain and won more than a quarter of the seats in the Strasbourg-based assembly.

The EU assembly approved Juncker by a clear majority of 422 votes with 250 against, 47 abstentions and 10 spoiled ballots.

The score, bigger than his center-right predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal achieved, fell short of the combined 479 votes of the center-right, center-left and liberal groups.

He will take office on November 1 barring any delay in the formation of the full 28-member Commission, whose members will undergo confirmation hearings in September before an overall vote of confidence in October.

In a speech delivered in French, German and English, Juncker sought to reassure Germany and other north European fiscal hawks that the 28-nation bloc's strict rules on budget deficits and debt reduction would be maintained.

However, his emphasis on public investment, reaffirmation of a target of raising industry to 20 percent of EU economic output from 19.1 percent in 2013 and call for a minimum wage in each EU country, were designed to reach out to the left.

To British skeptics demanding a return of powers from Brussels to national capitals, he declared that Europe could not be built against nation states and should focus on the big common challenges and not intervene in "small problems."

He was heckled by Euroskeptics but applauded by most lawmakers when he said the euro had protected Europeans in the world economy, and quoted former French President Francois Mitterrand as saying that nationalism only led to war.

Juncker cited the men who created Europe's single currency - Mitterrand, former Commission chief Jacques Delors and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl - as his heroes and mentors.

EU leaders will hold a summit on Wednesday to nominate a successor to European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who will also serve as first vice-president of the Commission.

Diplomats said Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini was front-runner for the post, but Poland and Baltic states have misgivings because she is seen as soft on Russia over Ukraine.

The leaders may postpone the choice of a successor to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs their summits, until after the summer break, the diplomats said.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt is widely seen as the leading candidate but France may object since her country is not in the eurozone, and the role also involves chairing summits of the currency area.

The increased Euroskeptic contingent made its presence felt in the debate on Juncker's appointment but eschewed the protest gestures that marked this month's inaugural session.

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, said that while Juncker was personally a pleasant man with a good sense of humor, "what is clear is you are going to carry on with the process of the centralization of powers.

"We are being asked to vote for the ultimate Brussels insider, somebody who has always operated with dark, backroom deals and stitch-ups," he told the chamber.

France's Marine Le Pen, speaking from the back benches after her anti-immigration National Front failed to find enough allies to form a parliamentary group, said Juncker stood for a self-perpetuating elite carving up top jobs among themselves.

"You weren't elected by the people," she declared. "We'll fight you and your institutions. Patriots are now in the majority."

In reply, Juncker joked that parliament was holding a secret ballot so that Farage's voters did not find out the British skeptic had voted for him. He thanked Le Pen for not voting for him, saying he did not want the support of anyone who stood for "exclusion and rejection."

Juncker said eurozone countries should get financial incentives if they make ambitious structural economic reforms, funded by the creation of a separate budget for the 18 countries in the currency area.

He also promised greater transparency in talks between the United States and the European Union to establish a trade and investment pact, which face strong public opposition in some EU countries.

"If we don't publish the related documents ... this treaty will fail. It will fail in the eyes of public opinion," he said, vowing to defend European health, labor and environmental standards in the negotiations.

Juncker said he would work for the creation of a guaranteed minimum social wage in each member state of the EU. He has advocated setting a minimum wage as a proportion of each country's median income, which varies widely between Luxembourg at the top and Romania and Bulgaria at the bottom.

He also vowed to protect public services in Europe from what he called "the whims of the age" - an apparent reference to privatization and restrictions on state aid. [Reuters]

ekathimerini.com , Tuesday Jul 15, 2014 (15:35)  
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