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Europe

Curtain Drops On Rocky EU Presidency

On June 30, Luxembourg's turn as EU president comes to an end. The Grand-Duchy's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, had ambitious plans during his tenure as EU head, but had to watch as several of them ran aground.

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Outgoing EU President Juncker hasn't had an easy time of it

For Luxembourg's prime minister, the absolute nadir of his stint as EU president came in the early hours of June 18 at the close of an EU summit. After 60 hours of negotiations, he was forced to announce that no compromise had been reached in the contentious disagreement over the EU budget.

"Europe isn't only experiencing a crisis, it's going through a really profound crisis," he said.

The negotiations, which centered on EU financing, stalled primarily around British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who demanded a fundamental change in the course of the European bloc. In a dig at Blair, a then-bitter Juncker told the man who was to follow him as EU president that he could not give him any parting advice, since Blair wouldn't take any advice anyway.

Despite Juncker's failure to find common ground among several EU member states, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder praised the Luxembourger for trying his best to find a compromise.

"A truly great presidency, a truly great European, Jean-Claude Juncker tried everything to bring the parties to an agreement," Schröder said.

Accusations that Juncker overloaded the EU summit, which actually only succeeded in postponing any solution to the constitutional financing crises, have been angrily repudiated.

EU-Finanzgipfel gescheitert, Jean Claude Juncker, EU-Ratspräsident während der PK

Jean-Claude Juncker

"I am interested in working for Europe and the interests of its citizens," he said. "I don't have time to play games."

After the French and Dutch rejected the referendums on the EU constitution, the Luxembourg presidency tried to insist that ratification should continue. But the position was quickly seen as unrealistic. Now that a "pause for reflection" has been put into effect, the constitution is frozen until 2008.

A bit of success

The only real success that Juncker can claim, and it's a qualified one at that, is the relaxation of the deficit rules, decided in March, for countries who fall foul of the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact, such as Germany and France. Critics say all the reform did was weaken rules meant to ensure the strength of the euro. But Juncker calls it a win.

"We have reformed the Stability and Growth Pact and brought a long period of uncertainty to an end," said Juncker.

The Luxembourgers also tried to revive the so-called Lisbon Agenda, which aims to spark higher rates of economic growth and development in the EU.

The Grand-Duchy also came in for praise, even from the British, for its highly organized running of the presidency. The tiny state had to make due with fewer staff members than other countries in organizing and heading dozens of meetings in its six months at the EU helm.

EU-Außenministertreffen Luxemburg

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, left, gestures while speaking with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, center, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, Monday June 13, 2005.

The exertion could be seen on the faces of Juncker and Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. Asselborn, for one, is looking forward to some vacation time.

"It is well known that it's not physically easy to be simultaneously a member of a government and the EU president," he said. "I'm going to have to recuperate in August."

Juncker is the longest-serving European head of state, who has been playing the game of political compromise for years. But just days after the shock of the failed summit, his pugnacious side came to the fore again.

"The first moments of disillusionment have now passed and made me more determined than even. Our generation doesn't have the right to destroy something that generations before us have built up," he said.

No time for relaxing

After Juncker vacates the EU president's chair, he won't have time to sit back and reflect; he will have to hit the campaign trail. On July 10, he must win the referendum on the EU constitution. Otherwise, he has said, he will resign.

Tony Blair im Europaparlament

British Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses the European Parliament in Brussels, Thursday June 23, 2005.

On July 1, British Prime Minister Tony Blair takes possession of the European scepter. But the Luxembourgers are not counting on their successors and new favorite enemy to make much progress with the big questions: constitutional ratification, EU basic principles and the tricky issue of financing.

For the head of the Socialists in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, the conservative Juncker is sure to get a place in the history books.

"Maybe it's too early to say today, but I'm sure that after us there will be people who say that Jean-Claude Juncker belongs in the gallery with the truly great Europeans," he said.

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