European leaders on Friday pushed through Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination to head the next European Commission while the prime ministers of Denmark and Finland looked likely candidates to chair their own council.
Juncker’s nomination, which is almost certain to be approved by the European Parliament, came over the strong objections of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, who fear the former premier of Luxembourg will advocate deeper political integration in the European Union as the head of its executive arm at the expense of expanding the single market, liberating trade with nations outside Europe and giving member states the flexibility to opt out of specific policies.
Juncker, who previously also chaired the council of eurozone finance ministers, had claimed the commission presidency after his European People’s Party won a plurality of the seats in the European Parliament in last month’s elections.
His appointment confirms the views of British Euroskeptics who believe the European Union is beyond reform and the island nation would be better off outside the bloc.
Cameron has promised his voters a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union, pending an effort to adjust the conditions of its membership. After Friday’s decision, he admitted, “The job has got harder of keeping Britain in a reformed EU.”
He implicitly criticized other leaders, saying that in a Europe crying out for reform, they had gone for a “career Brussels insider.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel, otherwise keen to keep liberal Britain involved in the European Union as a counterweight to more protectionist economies in the Mediterranean, told reporters, “I believe that the conclusions that we agreed showed we are ready to take British concerns seriously. The entire strategic agenda reflects Britain’s desire, which I share, for a modern, open, efficient European Union.”
However, as recently as Wednesday, Merkel signaled that she was prepared to give France and Italy more “flexibility” to meet their budget targets under European treaty rules. The two countries, ruled by leftist parties, had conditioned their support for Juncker on less austerity.
Individual commissioners are yet to be nominated. Britain can be expected to claim a powerful post given its failure to block Juncker.
The presidency of the European Council — the regular meeting of government leaders — will also soon be vacant. The prime ministers of Denmark and Finland, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Jyrki Katainen, are believed to be candidates to replace Herman Van Rompuy.
Katainen, a conservative, has already succeeded Olli Rehn as commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs — a position he is expected to keep unless he could become European Council president.
Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat, is a more likely candidate. The socialists in the European Parliament are assumed to demand the European Council presidency in return for supporting Juncker. However, the Danish leader herself insisted on Thursday she was “not a candidate.”
The new European Commission is due to take office in October.