STRASBOURG France (Reuters) - The European Union will have a new executive in place next month led by Jean-Claude Juncker following its approval in a vote by the European Parliament on Wednesday.
Addressing the chamber before his European Commission was approved by 423 votes to 209, the former Luxembourg premier warned that voters were losing patience with EU bureaucracy and a failure to create prosperity. He promised a major plan for new investment within two months of him taking office on Nov. 1.
“Citizens are losing faith,” he said in remarks to an assembly to which many new Euroskeptic members were elected in May. “Extremists on the left and right are nipping at our heels.
“We are last-chance Europe. Let’s seize this chance.”
After a rough ride in parliamentary confirmation hearings for some of the 28 commissioners, one nominated by each member state, Juncker made only one change to his original line-up and had no concerns going into the vote, given support from his own center-right bloc and from the main center-left party.
That “grand coalition”, also supported by the centrists, brought opposition from other parties, including the Greens, and an array of Euroskeptics, including French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, both of whom sharply criticized Juncker during the debate.
Juncker, 59, told parliament he would present details of his previously promised 300-billion-euro ($380-billion) plan for investment to bolster growth and jobs by the end of this year but also, in a nod to his conservative ally German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stressed governments must keep deficits down.
Switching from French to speak in German, he said investment was vital to restoring growth and creating jobs; Berlin is resisting calls from deficit-strapped France and Italy for it to spend more to kick-start growth in the stuttering euro zone.
Juncker stressed, however, that, as Merkel has said, much of the 300 billion euros should come from private investors and that the EU’s budget rules that limit the size of government deficits and public debt will not be weakened.
“The rules will not be changed,” Juncker said. “But they can be implemented with a degree flexibility.”
Investment, he said, was only one part of a three-pillar strategy, along with structural reforms of national economic policy and renewed fiscal credibility for governments.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives declared they would abstain in the vote. Cameron had tried in vain to block Juncker’s appointment by EU leaders. He said he was too much a veteran of Brussels backroom dealing to make reforms to the bloc that the British premier says are necessary before Britons vote in a referendum on whether to quit the EU.
An EU source said Juncker was disappointed by the abstention: “London failed to honor their part of the deal,” the source said, referring to Juncker’s appointment of Cameron ally Jonathan Hill as financial services commissioner - a move that provoked widespread opposition in other countries.
A spokesman for the Conservative-led bloc in parliament said there had been no “deal” and that the decision to abstain was based on an assessment of the commissioners in their hearings.
Asked at a news conference after the vote about British doubts over his ability to reform the EU as London wants, Juncker repeated his willingness to work to keep Britain in the bloc: “We want a fair deal with Britain,” he said.
Riding high in opinion polls ahead of a British election next spring, Farage however told Juncker that his EU executive was “the enemy of the very concept of democracy” and forecast that his would be the last commission to “govern Britain”.
Juncker pledged a “very political” team, not “a bunch of anonymous technocrats”, that would focus during its five-year mandate on carrying out major programs while leaving other matters to national governments.
He said a new, two-tier hierarchy Commission whose number has soared with the expansion of the EU to 28 member states, was designed to make it more efficient and to break down “parochial attitudes” in which commissioners pursued individual projects. A new layer of vice-presidents would coordinate them.
Juncker and his team will take over on Nov. 1 from the executive led for the past 10 years by the former Portuguese prime minister Jose Manuel Barroso.
Among major figures will be French former finance minister Pierre Moscovici, the economy commissioner, whose appointment was met with questions from Germany and conservatives elsewhere due to the Socialist’s part in a government in Paris that has failed to meet EU targets for cutting its deficits.
Moscovici will, however, share responsibility for upholding EU policy on the euro and budgets with austerity hawks Jyrki Katainen and Valdis Dombrovskis, Commision vice-presidents and former premiers of Finland and Latvia respectively.
The new EU foreign affairs chief will be Italy’s Federica Mogherini while the powerful antitrust commissioner will be Margrethe Vestager of Denmark.
Juncker’s “right hand” will be Frans Timmermans, the center-left former Dutch foreign minister. Among other tasks, he is to ensure a planned free-trade deal with the United States does not give too much power to multinational companies.
Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Alastair Macdonald and Jan Strupczewski; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Louise Ireland