* Former Luxembourg leader is veteran in art of EU
* Fiercely opposed by Britain as "wrong man" to reform bloc
* Centre-right politician defends strong rights for workers
* British exit threat may dominate his five-year term
By Paul Taylor
BRUSSELS, June 27 (Reuters) - Jean-Claude Juncker, who was
nominated as the next European Commission president on Friday
over fierce British opposition, has been a skilled fixer and
bridge-builder at the heart of Europe's monetary union for 25
The only leader still active to have been at the table at
the 1991 Maastricht summit that laid the foundations of the
euro, he faces a daunting challenge to restore public confidence
in European integration and hold the EU together.
Juncker, 59, prime minister of Luxembourg for 19 years until
he was defeated last year after an espionage scandal shook his
government, was in the thick of the battle to save the euro zone
from a debt crisis that threatened to engulf it in 2010-13.
He chaired euro zone finance ministers' meetings that agreed
on financial bailouts for five member states, tightened budget
discipline rules and shaped austerity policies that sparked a
political backlash against the EU in several countries.
At the height of the euro crisis, Juncker, an intensely
private man who deploys a wry, self-deprecating wit in four
languages, said he preferred "dark, secret debates" since the
glare of publicity only fed financial market panic.
The centre-right politician built his reputation as an
indispensable backroom weaver of compromises between the very
different German and French concepts of economic and fiscal
policy. Those have kept the European Union show on the road.
He helped craft the Stability and Growth Pact budget
discipline rules in 1997 and rewrote them, building in more
flexibility, after France and Germany breached them in 2003.
All the while, he nurtured tiny Luxembourg's prosperity as a
low-tax financial centre wedged between Germany, France and
Belgium - a business model long sheltered behind a wall of
banking secrecy that was only dismantled in his final year.
The trained lawyer who became finance minister aged 34 now
faces a far bigger challenge to revitalise the bloc's most
influential institution, with more than 20,000 staff, and drive
political and economic reforms on which the 28 member states
have very different demands.
People who have worked closely with Juncker question how
this sometimes irritable man will cope with the management
challenge of running a large bureaucracy and a big personal
staff, and whether he has the stamina for the constant travel
and speech-making imposed by the role currently held by Jose
Manuel Barroso, a former prime minister of Portugal.
His task will not be eased by British Prime Minister David
Cameron's branding him the wrong man at the wrong time, and
objecting that his nomination was the result of an illegitimate
power grab by the European Parliament.
Assuming EU lawmakers confirm him in a July 16 vote in which
he seems assured of a majority of centre-left and centre-right
deputies, his five-year term may be dominated by Cameron's
efforts to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU before
a referendum he has promised Britons in 2017 that will give them
the chance to quit the bloc altogether.
Son of a steelworker who was drafted forcibly into the Nazi
German army after the invasion of Luxembourg in 1940, Juncker's
political and social views were shaped by his postwar childhood
in a Christian trade union family.
"If my father had had to fear for his job every six months,
I would never have seen the inside of the Strasbourg law
faculty," he told a small group early this year, saying that had
convinced him of the need to curb flexible work contracts.
That background puts him on the left of the centre-right
European People's Party. He supports a national minimum wage for
all EU states, linked to median earnings, and a common set of
employee rights in the bloc's single market.
He has long opposed giving free-marketeering Britain an
opt-out from European employment legislation - such as limits on
working hours - a position that may be tested by Cameron.
The British leader fought Juncker's appointment, depicting
him as an old guard federalist who was the wrong man to lead the
Commission at a time when voters in last month's European
Parliament elections had demanded radical reform of the EU.
Eurosceptic British media caricatured him as a bureaucratic
old soak but failed to produce damning evidence that might have
undermined other leaders' confidence in his suitability.
In the EU, Juncker was long seen as the spiritual stepson of
former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He remains popular in
Germany, although Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in the end
backed his appointment, has at times been less enamoured of his
propensity for telling Germans home truths through the media.
After a quarter century as a fixture at EU summits, Juncker
clearly stands for continuity and gradual closer union rather
than radical change and decentralisation.
His views on European integration are tinged with nostalgia
for the days when the European Council of EU leaders, dominated
by the big member states, wielded less power and the "community
method" of governance prevailed.
Under that system, the Commission has the sole right to
initiate legislation based on the common European interest, with
member states and the European Parliament jointly enacting laws
and the European Court of Justice upholding them.
"This institutional triangle has been harmed in the last
decade and has lost its vigour," he said early this year. "The
European Commission has lost influence, which is a bad thing for
the common interest."
The euro zone crisis was largely managed through emergency
intergovernmental deals creating institutions such as the euro
zone rescue fund outside the EU treaty with little role for the
Commission and no European Parliament scrutiny.
Juncker would like to bring those arrangements under the EU
treaty umbrella eventually but recognises any reopening of the
charter now would be perilous given the state of public opinion.
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker; Writing by Paul Taylor;
Editing by Alastair Macdonald)