UK's Cameron braces to go down fighting as EU chooses new leader

The prime minister's relentless opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker's nomination has cost him almost all his European allies. Many worry it will help drive the UK out of the EU.

By , Staff writer

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    Candidate for the European Commission presidency Jean-Claude Juncker arrives at an European People's Party (EPP) meeting in Kortrijk June 26, 2014.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron is bracing for a humiliating defeat that has isolated Britain as a European Union summit kicks off today in the Belgian town of Ypres.

His relentless opposition to the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission has cost him almost all his European allies. That could look like a win for the center-right of Europe, from whose party Mr. Juncker hails, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has publicly backed Juncker.

But Juncker’s candidacy, which may be put to vote on Friday at the summit, has institutional and political implications for the EU. The showdown over his candidacy is testing the rules of democracy in Europe, and ultimately could harm the EU by driving Britain a step closer to leaving the organization. 

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“Cameron is out there all by himself, and it hurts Merkel, too,” says John Kornblum, the former US ambassador to Germany who is now a lawyer in Berlin. “They are each in a very uncomfortable position and they can’t get themselves out.”

The rise of Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, is a lightning rod because it’s the first time the European Parliament has assumed direct powers in floating an institutional head, normally decided upon by heads of state. Since the center-right European People’s Party garnered the most seat in the election, their lead candidate, Juncker, is poised to take over the commission. 

To Cameron, Juncker represents the "old guard" EU – a constituency, he says, that stands in the way of the EU reforms he is promising to a euroskeptic electorate at home. Cameron has told voters that if he is reelected, he will hold a referendum in 2017 on whether Britons wish to stay in the EU. He has also said that a so-called “Brexit” is more likely with Juncker at the helm.

While the Spitzenkandidaten process, as the new system is known, is controversial across Europe, many leaders have not been willing to stand in the way of Juncker’s rise. On Wednesday, both the Swedish and Dutch heads of state, former critics of the process, suggested that if the vote is taken on Friday – barring consensus by the heads of the 28-member bloc – they’ll stand behind him.

Merkel is not seen as a die-hard fan of Juncker or the new powers granted to parliament. But Germans have rallied around the idea of giving a democratically elected parliament more of say in who runs institutions of the EU – making her attempts to limit damage from Cameron’s risky bid and sound out other candidates play poorly at home. 

The standoff has also caused tensions in what has been a strong relationship between Cameron and Merkel. She is central to his goals of reshaping the EU's functions. Their economic visions align, and he helps temper the increasingly loud calls from France and Italy to ease austerity measures put in place during the eurocrisis.

But Merkel recently appeared to scold Cameron after he threatened that Juncker would make it harder for Britain to retain its EU membership.

“I think she’s miscalculated and now is in damage control,” says Jan Techau, a German who is the director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “She can live with Juncker, but she ... can’t look soft on democracy,” he says, no matter how much she may have wanted to accommodate Cameron. “It demonstrates how important how Germany is, but that it can’t always prevail.”

If Juncker puts both British and German leaders in an uncomfortable position – and many others doubting the new system – it  gives the left and  euroskeptics a boost. Leftist members of parliament agreed to back Juncker in exchange for his commitment to their growth agenda for Europe. And while a British exit has negative ramifications for all of Europe, not just Germany, it has one very clear victor: those calling for the demise of the EU.

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