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Juncker seeks right to run EU Commission after election win

By Jonathan Stearns

Jean-Claude Juncker staked a claim to the European Commission presidency after his Europe-wide party won parliamentary elections, setting up a potential clash with national government leaders over the high-profile post.

Juncker, the candidate for commission chief of Europe’s Christian Democrats, said he should be picked for the job because they came in first in European Parliament elections from May 22-25.

While the choice of a nominee lies with the European Union’s national leaders, a new EU-treaty rule requires them to take “into account” the election result. At issue is a successor to Jose Barroso of Portugal atop the commission, the EU executive arm that proposes and enforces legislation, acts as the bloc’s antitrust authority, administers its 140 billion-euro ($191 billion) budget and negotiates trade deals.

“All the starting conditions” exist “to give me a mandate to form the next commission,” Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, told reporters today in Brussels after the release of results. Premier for 18 years until he was voted out of office in December, Juncker also gained recognition in his dual role as head of the group of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis.

First Time

This would mark the first time that Europe’s voters determine the commission president, a step that would come at the expense of national capitals. EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande would have to renounce their right to make one of the bloc’s most prized political appointments, a post traditionally filled with the aim of ensuring a balance of power between big and small and northern and southern nations.

EU government heads will meet tomorrow in Brussels to discuss the election result while holding off on putting forward a nominee to succeed Barroso. The Parliament intends to vote on the next commission president in July, allowing for a month of political maneuvering in Brussels and national capitals over the job.

Merkel signaled she would back Juncker while leaving open the possibility that someone else might ultimately get the nod.

“Right now we’re going with the candidate Jean-Claude Juncker into the debate,” she told reporters today in Berlin. “We need intensive talks, which haven’t even begun yet.”

Government Leaders

In an attempt by the Parliament to prevent the choice of the next commission head from being the result of a “back- room” deal by government leaders, five EU-wide parties fielded candidates for the job in the run-up to the elections.

The 28-nation Parliament, which already has powers on par with those of national governments to amend or veto EU laws on everything from bank rescues to passenger rights, would increase its leverage by putting forward the next commission president.

Barroso, who was a sitting Portuguese prime minister when EU leaders selected him in 2004, has been accused in the Parliament of giving undue heed to the wishes of national governments. He’s scheduled to step down in October when his second five-year term ends.

The Christian Democrats, who include Merkel’s party, won 28.5 percent of the Parliament’s 751 seats, edging out the Socialists -- to whom Hollande’s party belongs -- who came in second with 25 percent, according to the results. The pro- business Liberals were third with 9 percent, while the Greens came in fourth with 7 percent.

Political Groups

An array of protest parties boosted their combined share of seats to about 30 percent from 20 percent. Their rise wasn’t strong enough to threaten a traditional system in which Europe’s mainstream parties cooperate on much of the Parliament’s legislative work, including debt-crisis management.

“It’ll be business as usual in the European Parliament,” Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of U.K.-based think tank Open Europe, said in an interview.

The commission president must gain the backing of a majority in the Parliament. As a result, Juncker will have to negotiate with other political groups -- notably the Socialists -- on his policy program to ensure sufficient support within the assembly.

The Socialists indicated they are ready to strike a deal with the Christian Democrats as long as Juncker pledges more focus on economic growth and less on budget austerity.

“We are prepared to negotiate,” Martin Schulz, the current German president of the Parliament and the Socialists’ candidate for commission chief, told reporters. “I’m looking with interest to the next hours and days.”

Wild Card

In a sign of the political bargaining to come, Schulz said he would gauge support in the assembly for his candidacy should Juncker stumble.

A wild card in this exercise could be newly elected members who campaigned under banners that don’t fit into the political make-up of the outgoing Parliament. These lawmakers, who number 63, could end up joining some of the existing groups, expanding their size.

Another layer of complexity -- and uncertainty -- exists in the process by which government leaders will eventually pick a nominee.

While legally the proposal by leaders must have the support of only a weighted majority of them, they tend to seek unanimity for such prominent posts. As a result, a strong objection to Juncker or Schulz by a single leader, especially one from a big EU country, could be a serious obstacle.

Juncker said the lack of formal veto power over his candidacy by any individual leader puts him in a position of strength.

“I’m not on my knees,” Juncker said. “I won the elections.”

[Bloomberg]

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