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June 8, 2014 3:46 pm
What price victory for David Cameron, if he succeeds in his attempt to stop Jean-Claude Juncker, the old-school Luxembourg federalist, assuming the presidency of the European Commission? Every day that passes sees the price rising.
Mr Cameron is not alone in having reservations about Mr Juncker’s appointment, but he is one of the few EU leaders prepared to make them public. If Mr Juncker fails – by no means certain – Mr Cameron will get the blame.
Already British diplomats talk of a souring of the mood around Europe’s chancelleries towards the UK. Some say the atmosphere is as bad as when Mr Cameron opposed a new fiscal pact at an acrid Brussels summit in 2011.
Things could get worse. An article in yesterday’s Sun newspaper proclaiming “Juncker family’s Nazi link” has already caused outrage in Germany. Elmar Brok, an MEP and ally of Angela Merkel, said it was “incredible”.
While The Sun may not be an official organ of the British state, the paper’s report that Mr Juncker’s father Joseph was forced to join the German army in 1941 will be seen by some as evidence that the UK risks becoming an outcast in polite European society.
“What British media do when they are out to destroy: they make you a Nazi,” tweeted Martin Selmayr, Mr Juncker’s campaign manager. “Disgusting.”
Mr Cameron may not be able to control the British tabloid press but his choices since becoming Conservative leader have contributed to his predicament.
His decision in 2009 to lead the Conservatives out of the main centre-right European bloc – the European People’s Party – has never been forgiven by Angela Merkel, German chancellor, nor by her CDU party, which is at the group’s core.
Extremists and eurosceptic parties make big gains in elections for the European Parliament
When the EPP and Ms Merkel agreed to make Mr Juncker the bloc’s “lead candidate” at a summit in Dublin in March, Mr Cameron was not at the table. The group won most seats in the European elections and now expects the top prize.
Mr Cameron’s decision to yield to his eurosceptic backbenchers and guarantee an in-out referendum in 2017 – a vote he had previously opposed – has made it essential for him to have a pro-reform, pro-British candidate in the Berlaymont headquarters of the commission.
The prime minister warned European leaders at a Brussels meeting just after last month’s European elections that if Mr Juncker was given the EU’s top job, this could push Britain towards the exit door.
“A face from the 80s cannot solve the problems of the next five years,” Mr Cameron was reported by Der Spiegel as having told leaders at the summit. A lead article in the German magazine condemned Mr Cameron’s stance as blackmail.
Mr Cameron’s tough comments at the summit and his blizzard of phone calls to European leaders were all part of a desperate attempt “to stop momentum building up” behind Mr Juncker’s candidacy, according to Downing Street officials.
For the prime minister, stopping Mr Juncker is not just about preventing a federalist running the commission, it is about the principle that elected national leaders, not the European parliament, should be the key players in deciding who gets the top EU jobs.
But Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, says that by being “so shrill and outspoken in public”, the British may have made it harder for others to abandon Mr Juncker.
Meanwhile, Mats Persson of the Open Europe think-tank says that if Mr Cameron does ultimately prevail in stopping Mr Juncker there will be a day of reckoning. “It’s hard to see how he won’t be forced to pay a price,” he said.
If Mr Cameron does get his way, UK officials admit Britain will have expended most of its political capital when it comes to a say in other top Brussels jobs, including president of the European Council and the EU’s foreign affairs chief.
The chances of Britain landing a top economic portfolio such as competition or the internal market are slim, a fact acknowledged by British officials who now talk of energy – once seen as something of a backwater – as a key post.
As to winning concessions from other national capitals ahead of his 2017 referendum, that task is becoming more complicated by the day.
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