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Juncker to helm EU Commission after winning MEPs’ support

Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker won the backing of European lawmakers on Tuesday to head the EU’s powerful executive for the next five years, despite a British-led campaign to block his appointment.

The conservative Juncker won 422 votes of 729 votes cast in the European Parliament, despite opposition from London and Budapest and reservations from some Socialist and Greens MEPs.

The veteran politician, Europe’s longest-serving leader until he lost the Luxembourg premiership last year, was named as a candidate for the job by 26 of the European Union’s 28 leaders.

He needed at least 376 votes in parliament to confirm his nomination.

Though a conservative, Juncker pledged to steer Europe towards growth and jobs and maintain its social-minded policies.

"The economy has to serve the people and not the other way around," he said in a speech to parliament in which he pleaded for a revival of Europe’s economy and spirit as he laid out his vision for the future.

"Europe has lost much of its credibility, the gap between the European Union and its citizens has grown," he said.

His nomination paves the way to an extraordinary EU summit Wednesday evening in Brussels where EU leaders will complete a jigsaw of appointments for the next years, including a new EU foreign policy chief as well as a successor to Herman Van Rompuy as EU Council president.

With 28 countries sending commissioners to Brussels — and vying for the top jobs — appointments take into account gender, right against left, north versus south and even east and west.

– Merkel: A ‘convincing’ election –

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Juncker’s "convincing" election, saying "it will give us wings to start with the work of the European Commission."

Its presidency is arguably the most powerful post in Brussels as the Commission drafts EU legislation, polices national budgets and anti-trust regulations, and negotiates trade treaties.

A staunch pro-European, the 59-year-old Juncker pledged his Commission would be less bureaucratic and would work to revitalise and re-industrialise the European Union.

"There is a 29th member of the EU emerging, the state of those without jobs… I would like this 29th member to be integrated with the others," he said as he called for a 300-billion-euro three-year investment plan.

He also called for "transparency" on data privacy and other problematic issues that have arisen in negotiations on an EU free trade deal with the United States.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had publicly opposed his nomination, favouring a new more reform-minded face to reboot the EU, which in May elections saw a huge surge in favour of eurosceptic parties.

Juncker, who as head of the Eurogroup steered the euro through the debt crisis, faced angry jeers Tuesday from Britain’s increasingly popular eurosceptics when he spoke out strongly in favour of the single currency, saying "the euro protects Europe."

At a press conference later, he said he was ready to negotiate "a fair deal" with Cameron over London’s bid to repatriate some EU powers from Brussels.

"I am not a federalist," he said. I don’t want a united states of Europe."

"This is an occasion for you to repeat that," he told journalists.

– ‘Nations at each others’ throats’ –

Juncker’s next hurdle is to put together a new Commission for the next five years made up of one member per EU member state.

With nations at each others’ throats for the key jobs — economic affairs, energy, competition — the composition of each commission is always a difficult affair.

This one has thrown up a new challenge. Juncker is worried at the lack of women being proposed by member states to join his team and said he was "still waiting for women to come forward."

He must submit a full line-up of commissioners to lawmakers for approval in October.

The parliament’s president, German social-democrat Martin Schulz, warned that MEPs would not back a Commission that so far has only three of four female candidates.

Last week, the women of the current Commission headed by Jose Manuel Barroso launched a campaign to get 10 or more female candidates named to the next EU executive.

But so far, capitals are putting forward only men. On Tuesday, Britain named Jonathan Hill, the leader of the House of Lords, as its nominee.

The names of a few female candidates are circulating, among them Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini and current Bulgarian commissioner Kristalina Georgieva — both as candidates to take over from foreign policy chief, Britain’s Catherine Ashton.