A Quiet Bureaucrat Is Set to Lead E.U. Executive Body ; Insider Unlikely to Satisfy Calls for More Democracy at European Commission

By Kanter, James | International New York Times, June 28, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Quiet Bureaucrat Is Set to Lead E.U. Executive Body ; Insider Unlikely to Satisfy Calls for More Democracy at European Commission


Kanter, James, International New York Times


As leaders prepared to meet Friday, they remained divided over the role of former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg in the European Commission.

As millions of Greeks faced misery amid Europe's debt crisis, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourger helping to oversee their rescue, was asked at a news conference what would happen if Greece failed to meet the demands of the lenders who had bailed out the country.

Mr. Juncker smirked, switched from English to German, and replied with a riddle: "If the donkey were a cat, it would sit at the top of the tree every day."

No one was really sure what it meant. Now, even as Mr. Juncker, 59, is poised to become president of the European Commission, the European Union's powerful executive branch, he remains just as inscrutable.

Not least of the current riddles surrounding him is how a former Luxembourg prime minister, whose seeming bureaucratic blandness belies a sharp intellect and formidable stamina, became the most divisive figure in the European Union, pitting the group's top leaders against one another in a showdown.

In Brussels on Friday, the group's leaders voted 26 to 2 to nominate Mr. Juncker for the presidency, Reuters reported. He will still need to be confirmed by the European Parliament.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain steadfastly opposed the choice of Mr. Juncker, arguing that he was unlikely to curb the kind of bureaucratic overreach that many European voters -- not least those in Britain -- rejected in elections in May.

On the other side was Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who made clear this past week that Mr. Juncker was her man.

In the voting on Friday, Mr. Cameron was joined in opposition only by Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.

When Mr. Juncker delivered his riddle two years ago, he was the president of the powerful Eurogroup of ministers who made critical decisions imposing austerity on countries like Greece, often at the behest of Germany, in return for bailouts that helped save the euro area from a meltdown.

To critics, Mr. Juncker's insider status makes him the wrong choice for the job at a time when officials in charge of the decades- old union are under unprecedented pressure to explain what they do far more clearly and to start shedding responsibilities to ensure their survival.

Protest parties like the French National Front and U.K. Independence Party that made strong gains in Pan-European elections last month campaigned against the European Union as being run by a haughty elite unable or unwilling to address the concerns of everyday citizens.

British officials have branded Mr. Juncker as emblematic of the problem: a business-as-usual choice, incapable of delivering change and foisted on leaders by the European Parliament in a process that amounts to a permanent transfer of power away from national governments.

Leaders have historically decided who should be president of the European Commission by consensus among themselves. …

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