BERLIN Feb 6 German Chancellor Angela Merkel
threw her weight behind Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker on
Thursday as the leading conservative candidate in May's European
Parliament elections, a potential springboard to head the
It was her first public endorsement of the veteran former
prime minister and ex-chairman of euro zone finance ministers
and it appeared to dim the prospects of French European
Commissioner Michel Barnier, the only other declared candidate.
As leader of Europe's biggest economy and most powerful
conservative party, Merkel wields strong influence in the
centre-right European People's Party (EPP).
"It is no secret that I have a lot of sympathy for
Jean-Claude Juncker," she said at a joint news conference with
new Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who ousted Juncker
after a general election last October.
While stopping short of explicitly backing Juncker to head
the EU executive, the chancellor said the immediate task was to
find someone to lead European conservatives in the elections who
could move up to become Commission president.
Merkel added that support from his own country was a "very
"If Mr Juncker can become Commission president, we will
support this candidacy," Bettel told reporters.
A new Commission chief, in charge of proposing and enforcing
regulations for some 500 million Europeans, will take office for
five years from November, succeeding Portugal's Jose Manuel
Barroso who has led the institution since 2004.
The centre-right EPP, the largest political grouping in the
outgoing 766-seat parliament, will chose its leading candidate
at a congress in Dublin on March 6-7.
The Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest group, have
already selected Germany's Martin Schulz, the current president
of the European Parliament, as their candidate.
The third biggest bloc, ALDE, the alliance of Europe's
Liberal parties, has chosen Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian
prime minister, as its candidate for Commission chief.
Whichever group wins the most seats in the May 22-25
elections is expected to lay claim to the Commission presidency,
although it is EU leaders who propose a candidate under treaty
rules, and parliament votes on their nominee.
The European legislature has gained an expanded role in
policy making under the 2009 Lisbon treaty.
Juncker, who was prime minister for 19 years, is a European
federalist who wants a bigger say for the Commission. He was a
key broker in Europe's debt crisis, leading the Eurogroup of
euro zone finance ministers until early last year.
However, his reputation has been tarnished by a spying
scandal in Luxembourg and his Eurogroup successor, Dutch Finance
Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, told Dutch TV last month that
Juncker drank and smoked heavily during crisis meetings.
"I would like to be asked about politics and not about my
alcohol problem which I don't have," Juncker responded in
Germany's Der Spiegel magazine this week.
His coalition government collapsed last year when the
Socialists quit, blaming him for failing to curb abuses of power
by the secret service.
(Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Paul Taylor)