European leaders gathered in Brussels on Friday to try and resolve a damaging row over Jean-Claude Juncker’s likely nomination as European Commission president which has left Britain isolated and angry.
Although Juncker’s appointment is expected to be confirmed at the summit, Prime Minister David Cameron will force an unprecedented vote on the issue, playing out in the public eye a major disagreement about the EU’s future.
Cameron remained bitterly defiant as he arrived for the talks, accusing Juncker of being a man “at the heart of the project to increase the power of Brussels”.
“I know the odds are stacked against me, but it doesn’t mean you change your mind,” he added, knowing that virtually all of the other 27 EU member states would vote for Juncker.
Leaders are expected to try and appease Cameron, potentially by offering London a top job in Brussels, but the dispute threatens to fuel eurosceptic sentiment in Britain before a referendum on leaving the EU slated for 2017.
Despite the bitter opposition by Britain, leaders are clearly expecting to be able to announce the Juncker choice on Friday.
A draft of the summit conclusions obtained by AFP and dated Wednesday contains the paragraph: “The European Council adopted the decision proposing to the European Parliament X for the President of the European Commission.”
But Cameron could “retaliate” against Juncker’s nomination by refusing to sign the conclusions, according to the EU Observer website.
The disagreement comes a month after anti-EU parties made sweeping gains in European elections, with outright victories for the UK Independence Party in Britain and the National Front in France.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, on Thursday urged EU colleagues to “compromise” with Britain to defuse tensions.
“I think we can find compromises here and make a step towards Great Britain,” she said.
“I repeatedly spoke of a European spirit which is needed and which will help us to find good solutions.”
Her comments came shortly before EU leaders gathered in the Belgian town of Ypres, among the first world war’s bloodiest battlefields, to mark 100 years since the conflict started.
‘Stick to my guns’
Facing a rising tide of euroscepticism at home, Cameron has vowed to “stick to my guns” in demanding EU reforms including the repatriation of powers ahead of a likely referendum despite his campaign against Juncker being abandoned by allies like the Netherlands and Sweden.
A string of senior jobs in the EU are up for grabs this year which could be used in an overall package to sweeten the pill of Juncker’s nomination for Cameron.
Analysts say a senior British figure could be offered a senior job while other compromises could include naming Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as successor to Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president.
Thorning-Schmidt – who hit the headlines when she shared a selfie with Cameron and Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last year – is thought to be favoured by Britain but not by France.
Away from disagreements over top jobs, European leaders were also discussing the conflict playing out on their doorsteps in Ukraine.
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova signed landmark association and free trade accords with the EU at the summit.
The pact, which was signed by Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko, has been at the heart of a months-long crisis in Ukraine and is fiercely opposed by Russia.
Poroshenko described the move as “a historic day, the most important day since independence” from Moscow in 1991.
It was then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to put the agreements on ice in November, under pressure from Moscow, which led to protests in Kiev and his ouster, followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent unrest in east Ukraine.