David Cameron’s isolation over Europe deepened last night as he refused to back down over his attempt to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.
After losing support among Britain’s natural EU allies, Mr Cameron’s negotiating stance was criticised by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians at home.
Kenneth Clarke, the Minister without Portfolio and a prominent pro-European, said Mr Juncker was “not an arch-villain” and the idea he was an “arch-federalist” was overblown. He said the row over the former Luxembourg Prime Minister was “out of all proportion”. But he backed Mr Cameron’s push to find a better candidate and suggested Christine Lagarde, the French head of the International Monetary Fund.
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, said: “It hasn’t been good for David Cameron. I think he’s right in principle that the appointment of the Commission president shouldn’t be foisted on heads of government [by] the European Parliament. But the way it’s been done, unfortunately, has not helped Britain punch its weight in Europe.”
There were further Coalition tensions as Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Treasury Secretary, released new Treasury figures showing that 3.3m jobs are “connected” to Britain’s membership of the EU. It emerged that George Osborne did not want the estimate published before last month’s Euro elections and that Mr Alexander had to fight hard to disclose the figure at all.
Labour claimed Mr Cameron had played a strong hand poorly. “It is a sign of his weakness, not strength, that he is so isolated amongst our allies in Europe,” said Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary.
Yesterday Mr Cameron rejected a last-minute plea for him to retreat in telephone calls with Germany’s Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, who are backing Mr Juncker despite their initial doubts. Downing Street said Mr Cameron explained that his opposition to the process would not change. One British source said: “This is not about some backroom deal using Mr Juncker as a bargaining chip.”
Mr Cameron will make clear his reservations about Mr Juncker at a dinner of EU leaders tonight in Ypres, Flanders, after a ceremony to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. They are due to discuss EU strategy for the next five years, without choosing the European Commission head until a formal summit in Brussels on Friday. Mr Cameron will argue tonight that the leaders cannot split EU priorities from the person who will head the Commission.
Mr Cameron will force an unprecedented vote at tomorrow’s summit, breaking with the tradition that the top Brussels job is decided by consensus and challenging other EU leaders to say why Mr Juncker is the right man. He will argue they have broken the gentleman’s agreement over appointments by pushing ahead with Mr Juncker without the UK’s backing.
Mr Cameron may have the support of only one of the other 27 EU members – Hungary. British officials signalled that Mr Cameron would accept the summit’s decision. “We will respect the process,” one said.
Mrs Merkel told the German Parliament it would be “no drama” if Mr Juncker were approved without unanimity.
Mr Cameron told the Commons: “It's important that the people involved understand that we need reform in Europe and it doesn't matter how hard I have to push this case. I will take it all the way to the end.”