Merkel Warns on Threats as Cameron Steps Up EU Exit Talk

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that threats aren’t the way to win arguments in the European Union as Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that failing to get his way may increase the chances of a U.K. exit.

After an overnight meeting hosted by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt at his country residence in Harpsund, Merkel and Cameron were still at loggerheads over the candidacy of Jean-Claude Juncker to head the European Commission. Merkel urged her fellow leaders to proceed in the “European spirit” to enable compromise.

“We can’t put aside this European spirit just because we’re now talking about personnel,” Merkel told reporters in a joint news briefing today after the talks, which also involved Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “Threats aren’t a part of that. That’s not how we operate.”

Cameron said that if his planned in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU goes ahead in 2017, “the approach that the EU takes between now and then will be very important.” It would be “unhelpful” if the bloc’s 28 leaders don’t appoint “people who are capable of taking the EU forward,” he said, referring to his opposition to Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg.

The public disagreement over who leads the EU commission, the bloc’s executive arm based in Brussels, threatened to undermine the leaders’ agreement to set aside discussion of personnel and focus instead on the EU’s agenda for the coming five years. All four leaders backed an agenda of spurring growth, jobs and increased competitiveness.

Summit Date

The spat over Juncker exposes a rift within the bloc after a continent-wide election last month yielded a surge in anti-EU sentiment. EU leaders are due to discuss appointments and the bloc’s agenda when they next meet in Brussels on June 26-27.

Merkel today reiterated her backing for the Luxembourger. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde last week brushed aside the possibility of her becoming a possible compromise candidate to head the commission, while Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, another possible candidate, also ruled herself out of the running today.

Rutte and Reinfeldt both insisted that the meeting had focused on the direction for the EU rather than individuals.

“The future policy priorities must be decided before we can decide on appointments of different top jobs,” the Swedish premier said.

Piano Room

Still, the question of the commission head did come up after dinner last night, as the leaders moved into Harpsund’s Piano Room, according to an official familiar with the discussions. Merkel and Cameron both stuck to their public positions, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to make a public statement on the conversation.

At the news conference, Cameron argued that the question of personnel was closely linked to that of policy, and that both would make a difference in the referendum that he’s promised if he wins next year’s election.

“If we can achieve reforms, if we can demonstrate openness, competitiveness, flexibility, less interference, reform, if people are capable of taking the EU forward in that direction, that will be helpful,” Cameron said. “If the EU doesn’t go in that direction that would be unhelpful. I think it is very plain and very obvious.”

System Questioned

Cameron and Rutte also questioned the system that has thrown Juncker into the mix. Juncker was the lead candidate for the European People’s Party, which won most seats in last month’s elections. The grouping includes Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

European Parliament leaders argue that the Lisbon Treaty gives them the right to nominate as commission head the lead candidate, known as a Spitzenkandidat in German, nominated by the winning group.

“On the question of the Spitzenkandidat obviously there were no such candidates in Britain,” Cameron said. “There is no legitimacy for that process in Britain.”

Rutte agreed. “I have always said the Spitzenkandidaten is not an automaticity,” he said. “I could very well envisage one of them becoming president of the commission but it is not an automaticity.”

‘Absurd’ Demonization

In Berlin, Axel Schaefer, the parliamentary spokesman on European affairs for Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partners, gave a reminder of the domestic pressure across parties on the chancellor to stick with Juncker.

“Juncker won the European elections and therefore has a right to the post of commission president,” Schaefer said in a telephone interview. “The debate in Britain has no longer got anything to do with reality: The way in which Juncker is being demonized is utterly absurd.”

The talks in Sweden covered freedom of movement, after anti-immigration parties made gains in the voting across Europe. According to the official familiar with the talks, the leaders discussed the possibility of welfare restrictions on migrants.

“In order to preserve free movement of labor we need a level playing field in the labor market,” Rutte said. “That means tackling abuses.”

EU President Herman Van Rompuy signaled the choice of the next commission president will be part of a package of appointments to high European posts, increasing the scope for a negotiated deal with the U.K.

“We have all to find a solution for not only the nomination of the president of the European Commission,” Van Rompuy, who chairs EU summits, told reporters today in Brussels.

He cited the need for decisions in “the upcoming months” on his own successor, on the EU foreign-policy chief, who is now Catherine Ashton of the U.K., and on “others.”

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