Juncker Says Cameron Has a Problem With Fellow EU LeadersJonathan Stearns
Jean-Claude Juncker said that Prime Minister David Cameron has a “problem” with fellow European Union leaders, aggravating tensions with Britain over its future in the bloc.
The comments by the president of the European Commission, made four days after he took office in the face of opposition from Cameron, are a signal to the U.K. of the risk of isolation as the British government challenges the EU over budget payments and immigration policy.
“I don’t have a problem with Mr. Cameron; Mr. Cameron has a problem with the other prime ministers,” Juncker told reporters in Brussels today during his first press conference as head of the commission, the 28-nation bloc’s regulator.
Juncker, Luxembourg’s premier for almost two decades until late 2013, defended the commission after Cameron slammed it for sending Britain a 2.1 billion-euro ($2.6 billion) surcharge for the EU budget. Juncker was speaking in the week that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman warned Cameron off trying to dilute the free movement of people within the bloc, saying the principle was “non-negotiable.”
The spats provide further evidence that Cameron’s efforts to appease EU skeptics in the U.K. before a general election in May are testing the patience of Britain’s allies in Europe. The cornerstone of his strategy is a plan, if re-elected next year, to repatriate EU powers and hold an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership in the bloc by 2017.
“Our clear desire is to see an effective reform of the EU that we can present to the British people with a clear recommendation that Britain’s future should be inside a reformed EU,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said during a podium discussion in Berlin today. “What is equally clear is that there is a very deep skepticism about whether an unreformed EU can be the future” for British membership.
EU finance ministers due to attend a two-day meeting in Brussels beginning tomorrow will discuss the disputed payments after the commission presented the bill to the U.K. and other countries last month as a result of routine budget-adjustment procedures endorsed by EU governments.
Cameron initially criticized the surcharge that the U.K. must pay by the start of December while attending an Oct. 23-24 EU summit, saying the commission demand was an “appalling way to behave” and “I’m not paying that bill on Dec. 1.”
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the pro-business Liberals in the European Parliament, said yesterday that Cameron was hurting his own Conservatives by pandering to the U.K. Independence Party’s policies toward the EU. UKIP, which demands immigration controls and wants Britain to leave the EU, is poised to wrest a second parliamentary seat from the Conservative Party at a special election on Nov. 20, polls suggest.
Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, told the EU Parliament in Brussels that Cameron is aping UKIP so much that he’s seeking to provoke crises with the EU, “if possible every week.”
On Oct. 27, Karel De Gucht, another Belgian Liberal, who was then still the EU’s trade commissioner, signaled that Cameron’s behavior at the summit was unworthy of a former imperial power.
“What is this? It’s politics at the level of a small village,” De Gucht, whose term ended on Oct. 31, told reporters in Brussels. “And when you have been an empire, well, that’s many steps down.”
Cameron faced criticism closer to home today at the weekly prime minister’s questions session in London, as opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband taunted the prime minister about his battles in Europe.
“You have no allies,” Miliband said.
“The prime minister works very closely with his other counterparts,” Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters when asked about Juncker’s comments. “He always puts the interests of British taxpayers first, of course, and he’s going to continue doing that.”