BRUSSELS: Despite their clashing visions for Europe, Britain and France agreed Tuesday that the massive increase in protest votes during the European Union election is a watershed moment that must lead to profound change in how Europe governs itself.
Coming into an EU summit meeting, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the anti-EU vote had shown that Brussels had become “too big, too bossy, too interfering,” and needed to return many powers to its 28-member nations as soon as possible.
The leaders met to assess the rise of the far-right, Euroskeptic and anti-establishment parties that took almost 30 percent of the seats in the European Parliament in national elections that ended Sunday. The summit had the major challenge of figuring out how to deal with the grassroots revolt of people turning away from the parties that built the EU.
French President Francois Hollande said that change was needed but added it should not spawn “policies against Europe, but to have policies for people who can see themselves within Europe.”
Nevertheless, even France, a founding member and a driving force of the EU, realized that the partly hostile and often apathetic electorate across the continent would be forcing through fundamental changes.
“I am European and I want Europe to change,” Hollande said.
One of the first battles was already shaping up – over Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and longtime leader of the group of nations with the euro currency, who wants to replace Jose Manuel Barroso as leader of the EU Commission. The post is important since the commission proposes legislation and runs much of the day-to-day affairs of the EU.
Juncker, 59, is seen as a master deal-maker in backrooms over many years and a committed defender of EU unity and closer cooperation, which is anathema to the Brits.
Cameron refused to elaborate on possible names for the post but said in a thinly veiled reference that he wanted people who were “not about the past.”
Hours ahead of the summit, parliamentary leaders authorized Juncker to seek a majority among EU legislators to back his bid to become Commission president. If he gets enough of the 751 EU lawmakers to support him, he will still have to convince the overwhelming majority of government leaders. The whole process could take several weeks.
For Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party that drew more votes than Cameron’s Conservatives in the EU election and is fully anti-EU, choosing Juncker would be yet more proof that the EU Parliament was tone deaf to change.
“You know, there is a big dissident voice now in this parliament. And yet, I just sat in a meeting where you wouldn’t have thought anything had happened at all, and it was business as usual,” Farage said after the conference of party leaders.
Juncker wants the post because he is the chief candidate for the European Parliament party group that got more votes than any other, the center-right EPP group. He was challenged for the job at a meeting ahead of the summit by Martin Schulz, president of the S&D Socialist of European Parliament group and Guy Verhofstadt of the liberal ALDE group.
All three groups saw their support fall in the elections: EPP dropped from 274 seats to just 213, the S&D Socialist of European Parliament fell to 190 from 196 and ALDE to 64 seats from 83.
But even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also from the EPP group, expressed tepid support for Juncker after the weekend election results.