YPRES, Belgium: Europe’s leaders sought to defuse a bitter quarrel with Britain’s David Cameron as they gathered for an emotionally-charged remembrance ceremony in Ypres, the scene of horrific carnage in World War 1.
As Europe recalled what happens when leaders fail to preserve peace on the conflict’s centenary, Germany’s Angela Merkel urged her peers to compromise with Cameron as he heads for defeat in a row over who will be the European Union’s next chief executive.
“I think we can find compromises here and make a step towards Great Britain,” Merkel said. “I repeatedly spoke of a European spirit which is needed and which will help us to find good solutions,” she added.
Cameron’s vocal campaign against naming ex Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker to head the powerful European Commission goes to the wire today when the bloc’s 28 leaders put it to an unprecedented vote at his demand.
Cameron has been abandoned by key allies in the fight against Juncker including Sweden and the Netherlands, triggering fears his isolation could reinforce a growing push in Britain to exit the EU.
Keen to avoid public signs of friction at the Ypres ceremony, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy has urged leaders keep the Juncker dispute off the table at commemorations of the 1914-1918 war in the small Belgian town.
“This is not about the end of the war, or any battle or victory,” Van Rompuy said as Europe’s leaders stood in a memorial garden built on the city’s fortifications to remember the war dead.
“It is about how it could start, about the mindless march to the abyss, about the sleepwalking. Above all about the millions who were killed on all sides, on all fronts.” The 60-year EU project is currently under severe strain with many, such as Cameron, calling for reforms.
Cameron sees Juncker, who until last year was Europe’s longest-serving leader, as a tired face and a federalist unlikely to promote reforms which could convince British voters to remain inside the EU in a referendum which could be held in 2017. He has asked Van Rompuy to call a vote by EU leaders today over Juncker’s nomination, rather than take a decision by consensus in line with previous practice.
Cameron might retaliate by refusing to sign summit documents at the close, the EU Observer newspaper said yesterday. The Commission, or EU executive, is the only Brussels institution able to propose legislation. It also polices the rules of the single market and recently won the power to oversee national budgets.
The British leader told Van Rompuy this week that he also opposed the fact that Juncker was put forward by the European Parliament’s conservative group — the EPP — which lost seats but still emerged as the largest single group after May elections.
“I believe that the European Commission president should be chosen by the elected heads of government and heads of state on the European Council. That is the right approach and it is wrong to sign up to this power grab by the parties of Europe and the European Parliament,” Cameron said Wednesday.
Juncker’s appointment is part of a package of top job changes as the EU moves into a new term following the May 25 elections that saw humiliating gains for the anti-EU parties, including victories in Britain and France, against the traditional centre-right, centre-left parties.
Van Rompuy is to step down in November and diplomats and analysts say his replacement by Denmark’s young premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt — who made headlines with a selfie with Cameron and Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral — might please Britain, though not France.
The remaining appointments may be discussed at yet another summit to be held, probably on July 17. Cameron could be offered as a concession a vital portfolio on the 28-member Commission.
Centre-left powers France and Italy, which are also supporting Juncker, are meanwhile calling on Brussels to boost efforts to pump up economic growth and job creation over the next five years.
Italy’s popular young premier Matteo Renzi, who increasingly is taking the lead on the left from French President Francois Hollande, made his support for Juncker conditional on a softening in the German-inspired austerity policies that Brussels has adopted in recent years to tame the eurozone debt crisis.