Juncker would be mixed bag for Ireland as top EU leader
AT THE height of the EU's rolling series of banking and currency crises, the diminutive figure of Jean-Claude Juncker was often visible outside buildings in Brussels and Luxembourg puffing furtively on a cigarette.
The EU's no-smoking meeting rooms were not the only issue. In January of this year the long-time Luxembourg premier was forced to publicly deny he had a drink problem after allegations by a Dutch politician that he drank and smoked too much.
The 59-year-old career politician comes from the EU's smallest state which is one-third the size of Co Cork and has a similar population to that county of about half-a-million people. And by the end of this month Jean-Claude Juncker is very likely to be the new EU Commission President – a job which will have a major impact on the lives of 500 million Europeans stretching from the Arctic Circle to Crete.
Juncker's candidacy for Brussels' biggest job was sealed in Dublin in early March of this year when colleagues from the European People's Party (EPP), or Christian Democrat grouping, formally endorsed him. His credentials were further strengthened when the EPP, to which Fine Gael is aligned, became the biggest bloc in the European Parliament with 221 out of the 751 seats.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is a strident opponent of Juncker's candidature, objecting in principle to the level of say given the European Parliament and personally to Juncker's passionate advocacy of further EU integration. There have been warnings that Juncker's appointment may hasten Britain's EU exit in a referendum expected in 2017, raising huge issues for Ireland.
Britain is supported by some other states including Sweden, Netherlands and Hungary. But Juncker has huge support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Germany is the biggest power in the EPP bloc. In Brussels this week the growing view was that Cameron and Britain will be outvoted with Juncker getting the necessary qualified majority.
Everybody would prefer a unanimous choice – but patience is in short supply and under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty no one country can veto the appointment. Britain used the veto in June 1995, allowing the appointment of another Luxembourger, Jacques Santer, and in turn leading to Juncker's appointment as head of government in Luxembourg and a stronger role on the EU stage.
Ireland has supported Juncker but wisely stood back from an increasingly ill-tempered spat between Britain and other states. Taoiseach Enda Kenny remains a possibility to come through the middle as a compromise candidate – though he has repeatedly denied any interest.
Juncker is the son of a Luxembourg steelworker whose father was forced into the German army during the occupation of World War II. Though he is a life-long member of the centre right Christian Democrat party, he is a centrist favouring a minimum wage and worker consultation. Though he qualified as a lawyer, he never practised and went into national politics from college, becoming Luxembourg premier and finance minister in 1995. He is fluent in four languages.
Juncker is also an old-style Brussels dealmaker and was heavily involved in negotiations for the ground-breaking Maastricht Treaty in 1992 which led to the birth of the euro. He was also central to brokering a compromise on the EU single currency membership rules, the so-called Stability & Growth Pact, at a summit in Dublin in December 1996.
Later he chaired the Euro Group, representing the currency member state governments, all through the currency and banking crisis from 2008 until December 2013 when he lost office in Luxembourg. All these roles are grist to the mill for critics who say he owns more than his share of blame for the euro's shortcomings.
The implications of his appointment for Ireland appear to be a mixed bag. On one hand he will be a defender of a strong EU Commission as defender of small member state rights. Against that he is a "Brussels' lifer" a fixer rather a visionary.
Many will fear he will be too dependent on Berlin and prone to yield too much to the Franco-German alliance. There is little evidence to suggest that he would aid Ireland's campaign for help with legacy bank debt.
But Juncker also shares a dubious distinction with Ireland as this country, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, are now the subject of a full-blown EU investigation on tax incentives. Some in Brussels claim that Luxembourg's "sweeteners" for multinationals make Ireland look like novices.
The tax probe findings could make for an interesting news day if Juncker is endorsed as EU Commission President at a summit in Brussels on June 26.