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June 18, 2014 7:25 pm
David Cameron has vowed to go down fighting in his battle to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming European Commission president, challenging other EU leaders at a summit next week to vote him down in an unprecedented showdown.
The UK’s prime minister is increasingly isolated and faces almost certain defeat, but he is determined to force a vote of leaders at the European Council, a body that has always previously made decisions on top Brussels jobs by consensus.
Mr Cameron accused leaders of criticising Mr Juncker and the appointment process in private, while being prepared to support the choice of the former Luxembourg prime minister at next week’s summit.
He told MPs: “If you want reform in Europe, you’ve got to stand up for it. If you want change, you’ve got to vote for it.”
Chris Patten, the former EU foreign affairs commissioner, has urged Angela Merkel not to box David Cameron into a corner at a summit next week, saying it was “not a sensible way for Germany to exercise its power”.
British officials say that if Mr Cameron “caved in” now it would send a signal to other EU members that he will be weak in subsequent negotiations on a new deal for Britain ahead of his planned 2017 in-out referendum.
His hard line will make for a highly uncomfortable summit; British officials believe Angela Merkel, German chancellor, will be among those worried about establishing a principle that big countries could be outvoted on such a big issue.
Ms Merkel is determined to draw a line under the Juncker affair next week. British officials believe she has been bounced into supporting the Luxembourger by domestic political and media pressure, with Ms Merkel warning Mr Cameron not to make “threats”.
Other member states including France and Italy are expected to back Ms Merkel over the appointment of Mr Juncker; both countries are hoping for a deal in which Brussels relaxes its demands for austerity.
Sir John Major, former British prime minister, claimed on Wednesday that Mr Cameron might then expect other concessions if he is outvoted over Mr Juncker, but the political damage to his authority will be considerable.
One face-saving option may be for Mr Cameron to be offered a “package” of top jobs more acceptable to London, although Brussels officials said there was no sense of urgency around filling other posts.
Ms Merkel is meeting Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s prime minister, on Thursday, sparking speculation she might be lined up to replace Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Council.
Ms Thorning-Schmidt is the daughter-in-law of former British Labour leader Neil Kinnock and is well-liked in London. Martin Selmayr, Mr Juncker’s campaign chief, has speculated that Radoslaw Sikorski, the Oxford-educated Polish foreign minister, might become EU foreign affairs chief.
Opposition to Mr Juncker has weakened to such an extent that some EU officials believe it is now unnecessary to discuss his candidacy as part of a package of top EU jobs, a practice frequently used in the past as a way of horse-trading support from reluctant member states.
Senior EU officials involved in negotiations said Mr Juncker’s appointment is now all but assured for Friday, day two of next week’s summit, which will begin with a dinner in Ypres and move on to Brussels.
Mr Van Rompuy had considered postponing the “jobs” discussion to avoid an Anglo-German dispute at Ypres, the site of fierce fighting between the two countries in the first world war, but has now decided to press ahead.
Ms Merkel’s decision to back a quick decision to avoid domestic political upheaval has largely killed any hope of delaying his nomination, officials said.
“What would be the advantage of postponement?” said one EU official involved in the talks. “It would only be an advantage if you have an alternate solution or there’s a chance of a better solution emerging. There isn’t.”
Although there is little sympathy for Mr Cameron’s dilemma in some EU quarters, particularly in France, other British allies in Brussels and northern EU capitals are worried what his loss could mean for the UK’s long-term relationship with Brussels.
Still, officials believe Ms Merkel is now unwilling to buck senior members of her own Christian Democratic Union party who are pushing for Mr Juncker’s nomination and German public opinion, which is increasingly critical of her earlier attempts to placate Mr Cameron.
Additional reporting by Stefan Wagstyl in Berlin
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