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article imageJuncker ready for one more push for EU unity

By Philippe AGRET (AFP)     Sep 11, 2018 in Politics

Greek debt. A refugee influx. Brexit deadlock. Jean-Claude Juncker has not had an easy term as head of the European Commission, the EU executive branch.

But what if his toughest year is yet to come?

On Wednesday, the 63-year-old former Luxembourg premier plans to lay out an ambitious reform programme for his last 12 months in charge.

His supporters point to a track record as a calm builder of compromise to suggest he can still get the European project back on track.

His detractors say his reliance on consensus only underlines Europe's weakness in the face of rising populist and eurosceptic forces.

During Juncker's final months, the politicians he is so practised at herding will be keeping an eye on May's EU parliamentary vote and what it means for their own futures.

Nevertheless, he plans to address them Wednesday on plans to build a robust EU border force, respond to cyber-crime and reform the reception of migrants.

The challenge will test his cheery demeanour and facetious sense of humour, much mocked on social media but deployed to mask a complex personality.

Born in 1954 in the heart of a Europe still recovering from war, Juncker sees himself as an heir of the European project's founding fathers.

The revival of euroscepticism and outright nationalism in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis has forced him to tone down his federalist instincts.

Juncker will address politicians on he plans to address them Wednesday on plans to build a robust EU...
Juncker will address politicians on he plans to address them Wednesday on plans to build a robust EU border force, respond to cyber-crime and reform the reception of migrants
, AFP/File

But he remains true to his credo: "Europe is capable of great things when it combines its strengths and energies."

His background helps. His native Luxembourg is the smallest of the union's founding members, sandwiched between the might of France and Germany.

He has been attentive to the concerns of other small countries, but as Luxembourg's leader between 1995 and 2013 he also rubbed elbows with a generation of greats.

Juncker knew France's president Francois Mitterrand and called Germany's late chancellor Helmut Kohl a mentor, friend, and "the very essence of Europe."

- 'A political rainbow' -

Juncker hails from Europe's centre-right Christian Democrat bloc but his ideological colours have proved so supple that one EU source dubbed him a "political rainbow".

His father was a steel worker and Franco-German leftist Daniel Cohn-Bendit once called him "the most socialist Christian Democrat that ever lived".

In office at home he governed largely in coalition with social-democrats and in Brussels he has proved adept at negotiating alliances to push compromise measures.

In July  to general surprise  Juncker hit it off with US President Donald Trump
In July, to general surprise, Juncker hit it off with US President Donald Trump
SAUL LOEB, AFP/File

Dogged by reports -- strongly denied -- of excessive drinking, he is often underestimated as a negotiator.

But in July, to general surprise, he hit it off with the author of The Art of the Deal himself, US President Donald Trump, and halted or delayed a threatened trade war.

In Brussels, Juncker may well be known for his wicked humour, but he has blue periods, and doubts, especially about the relative decline of his beloved Europe.

"By the end of the century we will represent four percent of the world's population," he has mused.

When he came to office in November 2014, Juncker hoped to boost the standing of European institutions in the eyes of an often sceptical public.

But the coming months of his tenure will be thoroughly overshadowed by negotiations on the "Brexit" divorce of one of the bloc's biggest members: Britain.

- 'King of the slackers' -

Many in European politics like and respect Juncker.

"He's the right man in the right job," said his successor as Luxembourg premier, Xavier Bettel.

"Everyone knows Jean-Claude. He's an emotional person, who speaks his mind and has strong personal relationships. A whole person, who doesn't say things by half."

But others are much more sceptical.

Green MEP Eva Joly wrote a polemical pamphlet denouncing Juncker as both "the wolf in the hen-house" and "king of the slackers", in hock to elite vested interests.

Images of Juncker cheerfully slapping and kissing colleagues have gone viral
Images of Juncker cheerfully slapping and kissing colleagues have gone viral
JOHN THYS, AFP/File

His public profile was certainly tarnished by the LuxLeaks whistleblower document dump, which showed him negotiating cosy tax breaks for multinationals in Luxembourg.

He can also be stubborn -- and vengeful.

He has defended the opaque promotion of his chief of staff Martin Selmayr to the EU Commission's top administrative post despite a stern ombudsman's report.

Eurosceptic media have also found him a rich source of anecdotes. A heavy smoker and reputed bon viveur, he has sometimes appeared inebriated in public.

Juncker's office insists he has sometimes been unsteady on his feet because of sciatica, a lower back affliction, but images of him cheerfully slapping and kissing colleagues have gone viral.

He is determined this will not be his legacy. Wednesday's speech, aides say, will not be a swansong, but the start of a new stage of an activist presidency.

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