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20th Sep 2020

UK to go to the wire in anti-Juncker push

  • Cameron (l) with EU council president Van Rompuy - The British PM has no veto power on the commission president; that option was removed in the Nice Treaty (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The UK has indicated that it is prepared to take its fight to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming EU commission president right to its conclusion, possibly provoking an unprecedented vote among EU leaders at next week's summit.

David Lidington, UK Europe minister, said London plans to push for "consensus" on a name other than Juncker.

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"There has never previously been an occasion when a decision about one of the top jobs in the EU has been decided by anything other than consensus. Our view is that this is the proper European course," he told EUobserver in Brussels.

He indicated that London will take the issue as far as a vote if needed.

"We don't think Mr Juncker is right as commission president," said Lidington adding that it was a point of "principle" that Prime Minister David Cameron will maintain "right to the end of the process".

"We hope there won't be a vote. We hope there will be consensus around the people and the programme."

Traditionally EU leaders discuss names for the top EU jobs (the EU council president and foreign policy posts are also up for grabs) and then decide on a name everyone can live with.

This system in the past has seen the UK torpedo commission president hopefuls, including two former Belgian PMs.

However the fledgling Spitzenkandidate process, which suggests the top candidate of the political party that wins the most votes in the European election is automatically nominated by EU leaders (in this case the centre-right's Juncker), has upset the process.

It has also prompted a major institutional crisis whereby leaders who halfheartedly went along with the new system now have to decide whether they will backtrack or whether they will go ahead and nominate Juncker, thereby handing a chunk of power to the European Parliament.

Both of the major players in the debate, the UK's Cameron and Germany's Angela Merkel are in a tight corner. The British leader has staked a lot of political capital on winning the battle. But Merkel, no huge fan of Juncker, faces a domestic political backlash if she abandons him.

Lidington, for his part, was scornful of the Spitzenkandidat system.

"No heads of government, no intergovernmental conference, have signed up to the idea that the choice of commission president should be limited to two or three people put forward by a small cabal in the European Parliament."

He said it could lead to "destabilising shifts in the institutional balance within the EU".

The minister also ruled out some sort of compromise whereby Juncker would get the post in return for a Britain-friendly policy programme or London getting weighty commission portfolios.

Cameron, for his part, told the national parliament on Wednesday that other EU leaders have expressed doubts both about Juncker and the Spitzenkandidat process.

Saving political face

But if it comes to a vote, the British leader would need them to go public in order to form a blocking minority.

There is strong reluctance among other leaders to actually vote on the issue. However this option is seen as a potential get-out clause for Cameron because it would allow him to say he tried for a different name but was outgunned.

Meanwhile the Juncker question is being played out against the backdrop of the UK's fierce domestic debate on the merits of EU membership.

"The people who want to see Britain leave the European Union take heart from any suggestion that the EU is not interested in serious reform," said Lidington, referring to Juncker getting the post.

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