* Former Luxembourg PM likely to win centre-right ticket
* Juncker - EU divided between ‘virtuous’ and weak
* Political groups chose lead candidates to engage citizens
By John O‘Donnell
DUBLIN, March 7 (Reuters) - Veteran Brussels politician Jean-Claude Juncker sought the backing of Europe’s centre-right on Friday in the race to become European Commission president, pledging to build bridges in a region he said was increasingly divided.
The former Luxembourg prime minister is expected to win against French rival Michel Barnier, the EU’s regulation chief, when the European People’s Party (EPP) chooses its lead candidate ahead of European Parliament elections in May.
It would put one of Europe’s most experienced deal brokers in contention for arguably its most influential job, although Juncker, who once said he sometimes lied and favoured “secret, dark debates”, has alienated some by his frankness.
“I want this job because I was becoming increasingly angry that the European Union does appear as being divided in two parts, the so-called virtuous countries and the so-called weaker countries,” Juncker told journalists at the EPP meeting.
The stakes are high. A new Commission president - replacing Jose Manuel Barroso, who has held the post since 2004 - will assume office for five years from November, in charge of an institution responsible for proposing and policing EU law, trade negotiations and coordinating foreign policy.
Juncker has the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats, making him the likely favourite for the EPP, now the largest force in European politics.
Choosing a lead candidate for Europe’s main political groups aims at making the vote more relevant to citizens. Building public interest is seen as vital for them given an increase in support for far-left, far-right and anti-EU protest parties.
Part of a generation of old-school politicians, Juncker played a significant role in handling Europe’s debt crisis, leading the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers.
Juncker was, however, caught up in a spying scandal in Luxembourg last year that lead to the collapse of the coalition government and his departure as prime minister.
His Eurogroup successor, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, also described him on Dutch television as a heavy drinker and smoker. Juncker has dismissed these suggestions.
Juncker disarmed but often irritated peers with his dry sense of humour, speaking openly of having to lie to the media, discussing his problems with kidney stones and once patting the head of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
“He’s outdated, part of the old establishment and partly responsible for the crisis,” Hannes Swoboda, leader of the rival socialists in the European Parliament, told journalists earlier this week. “Luxembourg didn’t want him anymore, why should Europe?”
But Viviane Reding, a European commissioner, defended her fellow-Luxembourger. “You need a safe pair of hands,” she said. “This is not about a fashionable football player coming in because he is young and sexy.”
For decades, turnout for European Parliament elections has been weak, with fewer than one in two voting in 2009. This may now change because a new EU treaty in 2009 gave the parliament more say in policy and a role in determining who should become the Commission president.
Following the worst financial crisis in a generation, however, many observers expect radical nationalist parties to win unprecedented support when voters from across the 28-member European Union go to the polls.
The political group that emerges as the largest bloc in parliament after the May 22-25 elections is expected to have first claim on the presidency post, although the choice also has to be approved by EU leaders.
The Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest group in the European Parliament, have selected Germany’s Martin Schulz, the current president of the European Parliament and a former bookseller, as their candidate. (Reporting By John O‘Donnell; Editing by Tom Heneghan)