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Juncker's EU Commission takes office

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The new European Commission formally takes office on Saturday under Jean-Claude Juncker, whose skills at getting things done in the labyrinthine corridors of power in Brussels face their biggest challenge yet.

[BRUSSELS] The new European Commission formally takes office on Saturday under Jean-Claude Juncker, whose skills at getting things done in the labyrinthine corridors of power in Brussels face their biggest challenge yet.

The prime minister of Luxembourg for 19 years, Mr Juncker says he wants to make the EU's executive arm less bureaucratic and more political, with a high-powered team that includes several other former premiers and senior ministers.

But the line-up that will guide the EU for the next five years will have its work cut out, both to turn around a stalling economy and to win over European voters increasingly sceptical about anything to do with Brussels.

Mr Juncker chose as his "right-hand man" Frans Timmermans, who gave up the Dutch foreign ministry post to play a key coordinating role as first vice-president, tying up any loose ends and ensuring that the Commission speaks with one voice.

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"The president of the Commission, that is me," Mr Juncker told the European Parliament ahead of its confirmation vote on the new line-up on October 22.

"But I have delegated a large part of my powers to the vice-president. Frans Timmermans is my right hand and I hope also he will be my left hand too," he said with his trademark dry humour.

Mr Juncker has created a new structure for the commission which continues to intrigue given his emphasis on its political role and its organisation.

Mr Timmermans will oversee six other vice-presidents dubbed "supercommissioners" charged with overseeing groups of commissioners. The commissioners in turn have individual portfolios but are also supposed to work with their peers when there is overlap, such as in the economics dossier.

Officials and EU diplomats say Mr Juncker faced a very tough fight to get his Commission team through member states and the European Parliament, finding himself villified more than once, especially by a hostile British press.

When he said he would limit his official trips and keep his residence in Luxembourg, critics dubbed the heavy-smoking, convivial 59-year-old "the part-time president." In response, Mr Juncker insists he and the Commission will do their job to the full, being neither "parliament's servant nor just the secretariat for the member states." Mr Juncker himself has a lot of people to convince, from national leaders such as Britain's David Cameron and Germany's Angela Merkel who opposed his appointment as commission president earlier this year, to European voters.

The Commission, the EU's executive arm, wields huge powers from the massive glass-and-steel Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels from where it draws up the legislative proposals needed to put the member states' decisions into effect.

As the EU administrator, it makes rafts of proposals across the whole agenda, be it on the economy or environment for member state leaders to consider when they meet in the European Council.

It is also a formidable bureaucracy, with a staff of some 23,500.

One staff member in particular has drawn attention in Brussels: Mr Juncker's chief of staff and general "eminence grise" Martin Selmayr.

The German faced criticism in September when he was accused of changing the written testimony of new trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem on a controversial EU-US trade deal, but he has defended his role, saying "there is nothing Machiavellian about me."

The new Commission's agenda is already charged - Mr Juncker has made it his first task to kickstart a 300 billion euro (US$380 billion) investment plan in an effort to get the faltering EU economy back on track.

If he can do that, he may also help ease tensions within the bloc over whether more spending or more austerity is the best way forward.

Add to that the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War with Russia over Ukraine, difficult talks on a massive free trade deal with Washington and uncertainty over Britain's EU future and the new Commission clearly has its work cut out.

AFP

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