How a mild-mannered Luxembourger may determine whether Britain leaves the EU

This man is haunting David Cameron’s nightmares.
This man is haunting David Cameron’s nightmares.
Image: AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert
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Nobody has been this worked up about something from Luxembourg since… well, ever.

Former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured above) was just nominated by EU leaders to become the next president of the European Commission. Well, almost all EU leaders.

British prime minister David Cameron has run an increasingly testy campaign against Juncker, making an impassioned last-ditch effort to thwart the Luxembourger at a meeting of European leaders in Brussels this evening. But he was outvoted in the end, with only Hungary’s Viktor Orban also voting against his nomination. All previous candidates for commission president were settled by unanimous consent.

As the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission is undoubtedly an important institution. But national leaders still wield far more power on pan-European affairs—witness Angela Merkel’s central role throughout the euro crisis. Whoever leads the commission, the EU’s habit of making decisions via messy compromises will be unaffected.

Still, London is abuzz about Juncker’s nomination. Cameron is fighting to shore up his support on the right, as his traditional supporters defect to the vehemently anti-EU UK Independence Party. To demonstrate his displeasure with the Brussels machine, Cameron came out strongly against Juncker, who is dubbed Mr. Euro for a career spent promoting the ever-closer union of European states. ”Jean-Claude Juncker has been at the heart of the project to increase the power of Brussels and reduce the powers of nation states for his entire working life,” Cameron said in a statement today. “He’s not the right person to take this organisation forward.”

Who Cameron would prefer instead is unclear. The prime minister has pledged to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU if his party wins the general election next year. In this context, the kerfuffle over Juncker is a “side-show in the longer game over the UK’s future relationship with the EU,” according to the think tank Open Europe.

Will they stay or will they go?

By setting himself so clearly in opposition to mainstream opinion in Brussels, Cameron is obviously hoping to score points back home. But this is a dangerous game. If Cameron is isolated further by his counterparts in Europe getting fed up with his intransigence, it might hasten the UK’s exit. Cameron wants to remain a member of a “reformed EU,” but if his preferred reforms—less integration, more decentralization—are ignored, he could drop the nuance and openly campaign against EU membership, despite the costs.

What matters now is whether the rest of the EU overlooks Cameron’s threats and tries to repair relations with London. Germany and a few other austerity-minded states in northern Europe are also less than enamored with how the EU works—particularly the push to pool their finances with shakier southern members. Without the UK’s support, they could be outvoted by the “Club Med” countries on crucial economic matters. This may persuade Germany and others to concede more important points to Cameron after he showed how huffy he can get with Juncker’s nomination.

Who would have thought that a civil service job for a 59-year-old son of a steelworker from Luxembourg could cause so much angst in London, Brussels, and beyond?