Opposition to Juncker wanes, Cameron isolated

With the Iron Lady. Thatcher Business Education Centre naming, 13 June. [Number 10/Flickr]

British Prime Minister David Cameron looked increasingly isolated in his campaign to block Jean-Claude Juncker becoming head of the European Commission, after Sweden and the Netherlands softened their opposition.

Cameron said on Tuesday (17 June) he would "fight right to the end" against the principle of giving the most powerful job in the EU to the candidate of the strongest party in last month's European Parliament elections.

Asked whether the comment acknowledged likely defeat, a senior British official said in Brussels: "The prime minister is certainly not throwing in the towel about next week.

"You never give up on a European negotiation. I've seen all sorts of twists and turns."

Britain has no veto over the decision, which would be subject to a qualified majority if it came to a vote. Cameron has failed to win over new allies despite intensive efforts to woo Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whom he telephoned again on Wednesday (18 June).

Renzi, who also met European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, has not publicly endorsed a candidate and is making his support conditional on changes in the euro zone's economic policy mix to favour pro-growth policies.

"For us, the political priorities come before the names," Sandro Gozi, his undersecretary in charge of European Affairs, told Reuters after that meeting. "Italy wants a substantial change in European policies compared with the past."

EU diplomats said Juncker, a centre-right former Luxembourg prime minister and veteran EU deal broker, was the only name on the table and looked increasingly likely to be nominated at a June 26-27 leaders summit.

Without Italy, Cameron is far from having a blocking minority of states representing 38% of the EU population. Some British diplomats are now arguing that even if London is alone, it would go against the European spirit to outvote it.

"Now everybody wants to get this out of the way except Cameron. At the end, Cameron might be alone," the European affairs adviser to one continental prime minister said.

Sweden and the Netherlands backing away

Two allies who lent towards Cameron initially, the Dutch and Swedish prime ministers, are edging away and do not rule out accepting the former Luxembourg Prime Minister if they are satisfied with the new Commission's policy agenda.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told reporters on Wednesday he wanted a reform plan for the new EU executive to be discussed first at next week's EU summit before personalities.

He hinted that a second summit might be necessary a few days later to pick the nominee.

"It is important for us to have this kind of a discussion about content before taking a stand on the name issue," he said.

A Swedish government source said Reinfeldt had never been opposed to Juncker, a fellow member of the centre-right European People's party, but wanted an agreement on policy first.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, an outspoken critic of the so-called "spitzenkandidaten" (lead candidates) process, took a similar line at a news conference on Friday, saying of Juncker: "He is a candidate, and we can imagine that he'll be the one (appointed) in the end, but it is not yet a certainty.

"The question of who the Netherlands supports at the end will be answered after we've discussed the content," Rutte said. "It could be him, but it's not automatic."

Juncker has the backing of all four main pro-European groups in the European Parliament, which has to vote on the nominee put forward by the European Council of EU leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc's most powerful leader, has tried to find a face-saving way to avoid isolating Cameron without giving up her backing for Juncker, 59, who was also her Christian Democratic party's leading candidate.

She is under strong domestic political and media pressure to stick with Juncker and diplomats say she wants to avoid a prolonged crisis among EU institutions by reaching a quick decision.

Merkel and her cabinet ruled out any softening of the EU's budget rules but her spokesman said she agreed with Italy and others on the need to use existing flexibility to promote growth.

Italian Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said Italy was not seeking a loosening of budget deficit limits to back its agenda for more growth, saying Rome merely wanted to use the scope offered by the existing rules.

Diplomats said Cameron could still claim credit for driving a reform agenda for the new Commission including a commitment to opening EU energy, digital and services markets and completing a free trade pact with the United States.

Britain might also secure a substantial Commission portfolio overseeing some of those reforms, they said.

But the British premier has raised the stakes so high in his personal opposition to Juncker that he would face scorn from Eurosceptics at home if he failed to block the Luxembourger.

  • 26-27 June: EU summit expected to designate new EU Commission President
  • 1-3 July: First plenary session of the newly constituted European Parliament. Informal negotiations with EU heads of states
  • 14-17 July: Parliament votes to approve or reject Commission president nominee in Strasbourg plenary session
  • Summer: National leaders designate their commissioners to Brussels. New president distributes portfolios within his team of 28 commissioners
  • September: Each commissioner is scrutinised in individual hearings before Parliament committees
  • October: European Parliament votes to approve or reject new Commission College as a whole
  • 1 November: Target date for new Commission to take office
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Gerry's picture

Somehow Cameron seems to have come to personally embody the whole of the British attitude towards Europe; angry, uncomfortable and isolated, obstinate and disrespectful to the opinion of others, wanting to dominate or else have nothing to do with it. Is there a future in all this?

A Londoner's picture

To be fair to Mr Cameron his stance has been backed by two pro-EU think tanks, by both Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform and by Open Europe. They have argued that a) Mr Junker is the wrong man for the job and b) that Spritzenkandidaten was a distortion of the treaties.

You can interpret it in the way you have or as yet another example of a conflict between British pragmatism (Is he the best person for the job?versus a Continental desire for grand schemes (what is the best route to the United States of Europe).

an european's picture

@ London
Even on America there are Spitzenkandidaten...
Cameron is a distorsion of the Art.17

Frank Burgdörfer's picture

Honestly, I have huge problems to find any kind of "strategy" in Cameron's statements and actions. And I seriously wonder how a politician doing his job this way could become the leader of one of the biggest and most important Western states.

Maybe nobody wanted to see the "dynamite" article 17 means - but everybody who ever dealt with a parliament will understand that giving an institution the last word means to enable them to dominate the whole process. Thus the strategic mistake of all those fearing a "federalization" was made years ago in the convention and then in the Lisbon negotiations.

Once such a setting is established and once it is becoming likely that it will be made use of, one needs to play the game according to the rules. Certainly Cameron could have avoided Juncker. But certainly not by giving up all influence in the EPP which was nothing but a withdrawal from a once powerful position.

Once Juncker was backed by a quickly formed coalition in the Parliament and while the heads of state were still confused and trying to re-orientate and find an answer, it was absolutely stupid to insist in a veto Cameron never had. The only effect was that he closed the lines even of people who had serious doubts. He voluntarily offered himself as the "enemy" EPP, S&D, Liberals and Greens needed to declare all their political disagreements "secondary".

It is always again the same pattern: Cameron takes himself out of the political process, gives up all influence in effect and stands their without any space of maneuver and without reliable allies. Nobody is interested in co-operating with a partner who simply tries to impose the own will and has nothing to offer.

The tragedy is, that Cameron is about to lead the who of Britain into the situation he is the British leader currently is in: Dominated by Europe and bound to all free market legislation, irrelevant in international affairs and without any voice and impact in Brussels.

Antmatt's picture

Under British law established in 2011 the appointment of Juncker through the European Council to the European Parliament is clear cut example of powers being transferred from the nation state to the European Parliament without UK voters approval. This will automatically trigger a referendum in the UK, this is why Cameron was so opposed to the move by Brussels as thanks to the law of unintended consequence they have now forced him by law to give what he & all the other PRO-EU party's in the UK have been trying to prevent.