- Our Town
EU to get new leader despite British opposition
By Juergen Baetz, The Associated Press
BRUSSELS - European Union leaders on Friday were poised to nominate former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker to become the 28-nation bloc's new chief executive, despite strong British opposition.
Overruling London and electing Juncker by a majority vote breaks with a decades-old tradition of choosing the President of the European Commission by consensus.
British Prime Minister David Cameron opposes appointing Juncker as the head of the EU's powerful executive branch because he views the 59-year-old as the embodiment of a pro-integration, consensus-favouring, empire-building Brussels clique that won't return power to member nations. He made clear Friday he was not ready to back down.
"There are times when it's very important to stick to principles ... even if the odds are stacked against you, rather than go along with something that you believe is profoundly wrong," he said.
"And today is one of those days."
Some EU leaders sought to appease Britain because the move to appoint Juncker threatens to further alienate the increasingly euroskeptic nation that many fear could even choose to leave the bloc of 500 million people.
"I very much hope that after today we can get back on track where the United Kingdom is an important partner and an influential partner in the European Union," Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said at the outset of the Brussels summit.
"I believe the UK needs Europe but I also think that Europe needs Great Britain to be part of us," she said.
Other leaders appeared more upset by Cameron's outspoken campaign against Juncker.
"They cannot alone block the 26 or 27 others countries that agree," Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo said.
Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb insisted Britain is an important partner pushing for reforms and a more open economy, but warned that a nation that ships half of its exports to EU nations shouldn't lightly flirt with leaving the bloc.
"I think in the United Kingdom some people obviously need to wake up and smell the coffee: the European Union is a very good thing for the United Kingdom," he said.
Juncker led Luxembourg — a tiny nation of some 500,000 people — for almost two decades. He also played a crucial role in shaping the euro currency, and led the group of finance ministers governing the 18-nation currency through the financial crisis that threatened the euro's very survival.
After the EU leaders nominate him, he still needs the Parliament's backing, but that is not expected to be a problem as both his centre-right bloc and the main centre-left Socialists and Democrats have said they will support him. In return, the centre-left leaders seek to be granted other top EU jobs, including the position of foreign policy chief, currently held by Catherine Ashton.
Cameron's staunch opposition to Juncker is also fueled by the way the latter was initially chosen — by Parliament and not by the national governments — and Britain's domestic politics.
Cameron is haunted both by increasingly euroskeptic lawmakers of his Conservative Party and the rising UK Independence Party, which advocates leaving the EU. He has vowed to renegotiate his country's relationship with the EU, seeking to diminish the power of bureaucrats in Brussels, before holding a referendum on Britain's EU membership in 2017, provided he wins re-election next year.
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