Goebbels suggests that the decisive stance that Asselborn took on that occasion may not be entirely characteristic. “He can have a very hard principled position like on the question of the Iraq war. But in general he seeks compromise. It would be too strong to say he is naïve. But sometimes he is possibly a little bit too kind in his approach. He could be a little bit tougher.”Christian Social MEP Erna Hennicot says that his choice of language against Juncker during the Iraq debate “was not politically correct”.“As a person, he is very charming and he is now getting along very well with Mr Juncker. I think he was driven to be more hardline by his party, not to be a sunny and nice boy. Sometimes he can speak too quickly without thinking beforehand.“I do not want to criticize him but this spontaneity may be a danger. But that [his attack on Juncker] was in a prepared speech, it was not something he said just because of a sudden passion while speaking.”Asselborn says he has no regrets that he had to relinquish control of his party to enter government. “There is no possibility to have time for the two,” he adds, noting that he has not had one day off since he took up his post in August. Like most of his colleagues, he holds more than one portfolio. In addition to the foreign affairs portfolio, Asselborn is minister for immigration. Relations between the two men are said to have become more cordial in the past few years. Under the party’s rules, Asselborn had to step down as leader to take up a ministerial appointment following the June 2004 general election. Bodry has now replaced him as party leader in a relatively seamless transition.Asselborn did not oversee any dramatic reversal of the party’s fortunes in terms of its share of the vote when it was under his tutelage. Its electoral score of 23% in this Summer’s poll was actually slightly lower than in 1999. The difference this time was that the Socialists were in a position to enter a fresh government with Juncker, thanks to the drubbing received by outgoing coalition partners, the liberal Democratic Party.As head of the opposition, Asselborn proved his political skills by seizing on the widespread opposition to the war in Iraq. His party organized rallies against military intervention while, in the national parliament, he harangued Juncker and then foreign minister Lydie Polfer for their reticence on the war. Observers say Asselborn’s taunts were instrumental in making Juncker decide to side with governments in neighbouring Belgium, France and Germany in opposing the war, despite an initial desire not to upset Washington.“The government did not really know which side to choose,” says socialist MEP Robert Goebbels. “Jean Asselborn led the offensive in the national parliament and forged a majority who decided to choose ‘old Europe’. He argued that we cannot solve the problems of this world with military strength.” The one major obstacle he has encountered is internal rivalry within the Socialist Workers’ Party.In January 1998, he was tipped to be the Socialists’ nominee for minister of health when it was in a coalition government with Jean-Claude Juncker’s centre-right Christian Social Party. Despite losing out to a competitor in a party congress ballot, he would soon bounce back. Within a year, he was, after an attempt to remove him from the post, re-elected the Socialists’ leader. “A lot of people underestimate Jean Asselborn; they think he speaks too much without thinking,” says a journalist based in Luxembourg. “But this proved his tenacity.”The leadership contest followed what Asselborn describes as a “painful defeat” for the Socialists in the 1999 general election, when it was ousted from government. It was a keenly fought battle between him and Alex Bodry. According to pundits, Asselborn subscribes more to the traditional left-wing views of ‘old Labour’ in the UK than the more reform-minded Bodry. Landlocked Luxembourg receives far fewer asylum-seekers and immigrants than those EU states with long coastlines. Nevertheless, the number of immigrants (excluding asylum-seekers) hit nearly 13,000 in 2002 – about twice as many as ten years previously. Growing up during a period of large-scale immigration to the Grand Duchy from Italy and Portugal, Asselborn says that he decided long ago that the country needed to be outward-looking.He has high hopes for the Luxembourg EU presidency. The Grand Duchy will endeavour to sign off deals on the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact and the Union’s spending plans for the 2007-13 period, although he confesses to having “no magic potion” for dealing with issues such as the future of the British budget rebate. On foreign policy, he wants the EU’s influence as a force for peace and stability to be felt in the Balkans and the Middle East.Observers of EU affairs should not be surprised if he peppers his pronouncements in the next six months with references to the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia as he is a cycling fanatic. At the very least, this will create a sense of continuity with the outgoing Dutch presidency; his counterpart in The Hague, Ben Bot, also enjoys taking to his saddle and the two men have agreed to go on an excursion together as soon as their diaries permit. Goebbels recalls one party conference which finished late in the evening. When saying goodnight, Asselborn told him he planned to catch a few hours’ sleep and then hop on his bike for Paris the following day. Claiming to have accumulated 12,000km last year, Asselborn’s holidays usually see him trundling all the way from Luxembourg to Switzerland, Italy, France or Spain. After ten days crossing the Alps, he normally meets up with his family who have followed him by car. Luxembourg’s current foreign minister grew up in a working-class family and took a job in a chemical factory as soon as he left school. Finding work as a local authority official soon afterwards, it took almost another decade before he resumed formal education, starting a long period in which he would try to juggle a day job with nightly classes and study. “It was more difficult than the preparations for the presidency,” he jokes today, as his government braces itself for six months at the EU’s helm.By the time he was studying law at France’s University of Nancy, he was also holding down a hospital administrator’s post and growing accustomed to the flesh-pressing demands of municipal politics. Three days before he was awarded a master’s degree, he was elected mayor of Steinfort (population today: 4,500). His career has progressed steadily since then but it has not been devoid of hiccups. He has two daughters – Anne (born in 1982) and Julie (born in 1987) – with his wife, Sylvie Hubert. His two-wheel fixation, he says, is “not only a sport but a way of letting me be alone with nature”. With half a year of incessant political discussions imminent, it might be a while before he can get in touch with his wild side again.