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Troubled Juncker is Europe’s longest-serving leader

Jean-Claude Juncker, the respected premier of Luxembourg for 18 years whose fate is in question over a spy scandal, is Europe’s longest-serving leader as well as a passionate defender of the euro and the European dream.

At the helm of a coalition government headed by his Christian Social People’s Party, 58-year-old Juncker is in trouble just months after calling a halt to eight tumultuous years as head of the eurozone finance ministers group.

At the head of the eurogroup between 2005 and January this year, he was known for a dry sense of humour, commitment to the European cause and an ability to reconcile the often sharply differing views of France and Germany, the bloc’s top two economies.

“When I want to speak in French, I think in German; when I want to speak in German, I think in French, with the result that I am totally incomprehensible,” he joked typically at one stage.

But in Luxembourg a parliamentary inquiry into the tiny country’s intelligence service — the SREL — found Juncker had been too busy steering the single currency through its crisis to oversee the shady doings of its agents.

Juncker first joined the Luxembourg government in 1982, at the age of 28, and has sat at the top table ever since, serving first as finance minister then as premier from 1995, becoming a fixture on the European Union scene.

Throughout he was never afraid to speak out.

He has “two fatal flaws — he has an opinion and he is not afraid to share it”, said one European official.

In a farewell address to the European Parliament as eurogroup chief this year, Juncker typically did not mince his words, railing against unnamed, rich northern states who had become arrogant, laying down the law to their weaker southern EU partners.

Annoyed by one MEP who accused him of spouting platitudes, Juncker shot back: “You will see what platitudes really are in the next few years.”

None of the strains of the euro crisis dampened his faith in a federal European state which could be home to all the old continent’s traditions and peoples after decades of conflict and bloodshed.

He was awarded Germany’s prestigious Charlemagne Prize in 2006 for his commitment and vision, which he always tempered with a solid dose of realism.

“For me, Europe is about taking a series of concrete steps and strong, perhaps even fervent, convictions,” he told German TV recently. “But strong convictions alone are worth nothing if you can’t be pragmatic too.”

Juncker was born December 9, 1954 in a Europe still struggling to rise from the wreckage of World War II when his father had been press-ganged into the German army.

His father was a strong influence, not least for his experiences as a metal worker and union member.

A smoker, Juncker appreciates the finer things in life — good cognac, certainly — and holds firmly to the political right but he is suspicious of its simple prescription that free market economics can solve all problems.

“Juncker, he is the most Socialist Christian-Democrat there is,” said MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Greens.