STRASBOURG France (Reuters) - Jean-Claude Juncker won a wide endorsement from the European Parliament on Tuesday to be the next head of the executive European Commission after setting out a “grand coalition” investment programme to help revive Europe’s economy.
Belying his reputation as a grey back-room fixer, Juncker spoke with passion of his ambition to “reindustrialise” Europe and put the European Union’s 25 million unemployed, many of them young, back into work.
He promised a 300-billion-euro ($409-billion) public-private investment programme over the next three years, combining existing and perhaps augmented resources from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank with private sector funds, to build energy, transport and broadband networks and industry clusters.
“We need a reindustrialisation of Europe,” the 59-year-old former Luxembourg prime minister said. He won support from the Socialists and Liberals as well as his own centre-right bloc, the largest in the EU legislature.
The position he assumes is the most powerful in the EU. The Commission proposes and enforces laws for 500 million Europeans, from Ireland in the west to Lithuania in the east.
Juncker acknowledged many Europeans had lost confidence in the EU and said only economic results and full employment, not endless debate over EU institutions, would restore their trust.
Eurosceptic parties topped May’s European Parliament elections in France and Britain and won more than a quarter of the seats in the Strasbourg-based assembly.
In a secret ballot, the EU assembly approved Juncker by 422 votes to 250, with 47 abstentions and 10 spoiled ballots.
The score, bigger than his centre-right predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal achieved, fell short of the combined 479 votes of the centre-right, centre-left and liberal groups.
He will take office on Nov. 1 barring any delay in the formation of the full 28-member Commission, whose members will undergo confirmation hearings in September before an overall vote of confidence in October.
In a speech delivered in French, German and English, Juncker sought to reassure Germany and other north European fiscal hawks that the 28-nation bloc’s strict rules on budget deficits and debt reduction would be maintained.
However, his emphasis on public investment, reaffirmation of a target of raising industry to 20 percent of EU economic output and call for a minimum wage in each EU country, were designed to appeal to the left.
To British sceptics demanding a return of powers from Brussels to national capitals, he declared that Europe could not be built against nation states and should focus on the big common challenges and not intervene in “small problems”.
Juncker later told a news conference he was willing to negotiate with Britain on a list it intended to put forward of EU powers to be returned to national capitals.
“I will negotiate with (Prime Minister) David Cameron and with others and we will make a fair deal with Britain,” he said.
He was heckled by Eurosceptics but applauded by most lawmakers when he said the euro had protected Europeans in the world economy, and quoted former French President Francois Mitterrand as saying that nationalism only led to war.
“WE‘LL FIGHT YOU”
EU leaders will hold a summit on Wednesday to nominate a successor to European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who will also serve as first vice-president of the Commission.
Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini is front-runner and an Italian minister said Rome would seek to force a vote to appoint her if Poland and Baltic states, which see her as soft on Russia over Ukraine, raised objections.
The leaders may postpone the choice of a successor to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs their summits, until after the summer break, the diplomats said.
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt is widely seen as the leading candidate but France may object since her country is not in the euro zone, and the role also involves chairing summits of the currency area.
Juncker said he was pressing EU leaders to offer more women candidates to give the Commission a better gender balance. Nine women sat in the outgoing 28-member executive. European Parliament President Martin Schulz said lawmakers would reject the full Commission if it only contained the three or four women proposed so far.
The increased Eurosceptic contingent made its presence felt in the debate on Juncker’s appointment but eschewed the protest gestures that marked this month’s inaugural session.
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, said: “What is clear is you are going to carry on with the process of the centralisation of powers. We are being asked to vote for the ultimate Brussels insider, somebody who has always operated with dark, backroom deals and stitch-ups.”
France’s Marine Le Pen, speaking from the back benches after her anti-immigration National Front failed to find enough allies to form a parliamentary group, said Juncker stood for a self-perpetuating elite carving up top jobs among themselves.
“You weren’t elected by the people,” she said. “We’ll fight you and your institutions. Patriots are now in the majority.”
Juncker said he did not want Le Pen’s vote because she stood for “exclusion and rejection”.
Juncker said euro zone countries should get financial incentives if they make ambitious structural economic reforms, funded by the creation of a separate budget for the 18 countries in the currency area.
He also promised greater transparency in talks between the United States and the European Union to establish a trade and investment pact, which face strong public opposition in some EU countries. He said he would defend European health, labour and environmental standards in the negotiations.
He also vowed to protect public services in Europe from what he called “the whims of the age” - an apparent reference to privatisation and restrictions on state aid.
Reporting by Robin Emmott, Julia Fioretti, Adrian Croft, John O'Donnell and Martin Santa; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Janet Lawrence