European Union leaders swept aside U.K. opposition and nominated Jean-Claude Juncker to the EU’s top job, further fraying ties with Britain before its planned referendum on membership of the bloc.
Government heads proposed Juncker, a 59-year-old former Luxembourg prime minister, as European Commission president after he ran for the post as the candidate of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties in EU-wide elections. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron was out-voted by his fellow leaders, the first time such a decision wasn’t taken unanimously.
Juncker ran Luxembourg for almost 19 years until a national election forced him out of office last year. In a dual role chairing meetings of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis, he steered negotiations -- often through the night -- on aid for distressed countries including Greece.
Juncker is “a passionate European who can bridge differences,” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told reporters after the EU summit yesterday in Brussels. “He’s also a realist politician, a person with very deep knowledge of Europe.”
Juncker’s nomination, which must be approved by the European Parliament, underscores the opposing forces driving the EU toward greater integration and Britain toward the exit. The 28-nation bloc used a new system to appoint a familiar face, leading Cameron to argue that both the procedure and the personality were wrong.
Five pan-European parties put forward candidates for commission chief in the run-up to EU Parliament elections in May that the Christian Democrats won. Exploiting a new treaty rule that requires leaders to take “into account” the election result when proposing a commission president, the parties aimed to prevent a traditional back-room deal.
Cameron, facing growing anti-European sentiment at home, has vowed to repatriate powers and hold an in-or-out referendum on U.K. membership of the EU if he wins a national election next year, and has said he favors remaining in the bloc.
Cameron gained the support of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and Britain’s main opposition Labour Party for his stance against Juncker and the method for choosing him. Yesterday after the nomination, he called the job of keeping Britain in the EU “harder,” while saying he’s still committed to doing so.
“This is a bad day for Europe,” Cameron said. “It risks undermining the position of national governments. It risks undermining the power of national parliaments. And it hands power to the European Parliament.”
Only one other leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, joined Cameron in voting against the Luxembourger. The remaining 26 government heads voted in favor.
“The Juncker episode is clearly a substantial defeat for David Cameron and, without remedy, increases the risk of Brexit,” Mats Persson, director of the U.K.-based Open Europe research institute, said in an e-mailed statement.
The commission presidency is among the most-prized European posts because the organization is the EU’s engine, proposing and enforcing EU laws, monitoring national economies and negotiating trade deals. The incumbent, Portugal’s Jose Barroso, is due to step down in October when his second five-year term ends.
Juncker’s nomination resulted from a compromise among national leaders and European parties over policies and personnel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled that the U.K. still has scope to influence these, saying “we are ready to take seriously British concerns and British priorities.”
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a Socialist, tied his support for Juncker to a promise of more growth-boosting European policies after five years of German-fashioned budget austerity designed to stem the debt crisis.
Similarly, the main European parties including the Christian Democrats agreed to support Martin Schulz, a German who was the Socialists’ unsuccessful candidate for commission chief, as EU Parliament president for the next two-and-a-half years. Schulz held that job until earlier this month, when he stepped down in order to re-run.
Other European personnel choices loom as government leaders consider a successor to EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs their summits, and nominees for commissioners in Juncker’s team. Each nation appoints one commissioner, whose portfolio is assigned by the president.
One of these jobs is that of European foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is Britain’s EU commissioner. Another summit is planned for July 16 to strike an agreement on a broader package of posts.
Some supporters of Juncker who wished to avoid isolating Britain over his nomination to the top commission job expressed hope that the remaining discussions on policies and personnel will smooth ties with Cameron.
“We need to build some bridges,” Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said.
Even so, Stubb said, “in the U.K., some people need to very seriously wake up and smell the coffee. The European Union is a very good thing for the United Kingdom.”