On the eve of a two-day E.U. summit in Belgium that began Thursday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron was dealt a major blow to his campaign to block the nomination of former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president. Former allies the Netherlands and Sweden both switched tack, and are now saying they will support Juncker’s bid during the expected informal discussion on the presidency on Friday.
The reversal leaves the British premier out in the cold – all the more so since German Chancellor Angela Merkel is backing Juncker as well, under heavy pressure from her own cabinet. (Cameron’s sole remaining ally is Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — hardly a consolation.) Cameron’s fear is that Juncker’s federalist and integrationist inclinations will further centralize power in the E.U., and reduce the influence of the European Council, which is composed of heads of state, all while slowing the reforms the bloc urgently needs. Domestic politics are at play as well. Thus far, Cameron’s gambit has resonated well among the home crowd – some 49% of voters polled by the Financial Times view the prime minister’s actions as “strong”; however, his failure to block Juncker’s nomination could backfire in the immediate term by handicapping his Tory party, who have increasingly leaned towards a Euroskeptic platform to counter the rise of the Europhobic UKIP party, during next year’s general election when the question of European integration is set to dominate.
As we noted on June 13, the isolated British leader looks sure to be on the losing side. Nevertheless, he is pushing ahead, calling for a formal vote instead of the traditional consensus. “I will take it all the way to the end,” Cameron said on Wednesday. So, what to expect? Some insiders warn that Juncker’s nomination may hasten Britain’s departure from the E.U. Indeed, Cameron has intimated as much. However, a push for concessions that would help the prime minister forestall that outcome is more likely (think favorable terms when Britain renegotiates its E.U. membership). Here, Merkel, forced to back Juncker by her coalition partners, rather than personal inclination, could prove a sympathetic ally in the wake of Cameron’s defeat.
Though, in his obstinate campaign to oust Juncker, Cameron may have well exhausted all good will in both Berlin and Brussels, where many are bemoaning British obstructionism. On Thursday, Europe’s leaders are set to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, and then attend a working dinner to discuss E.U. policy. Come Friday, however, looks for the sparks to fly.