DAVID Cameron said Brussels was “too big, too bossy, too interfering” as he arrived last night for talks with fellow European Union leaders in the wake of unprecedented success for eurosceptic parties in elections across the continent.
Earlier, in a series of phone calls, the Prime Minister urged his European counterparts to seize the “moment for change” and warned that Europe cannot “shrug off” the results, which saw mainstream politicians lose out to anti-EU parties.
The political earthquake, which in Britain saw Ukip top the polls with 24 seats – including its first in Scotland – was expected to dominate last night’s scheduled gathering of the 28 EU leaders in Brussels. As leaders picked over the poll results, Mr Cameron used the dismal verdict voters returned on mainstream parties to underline his calls for change.
Speaking before last night’s dinner, Mr Cameron said: “Europe cannot shrug off these results. We need an approach that recognises Europe should concentrate on what matters, on growth and jobs – and not try and do so much.
“We need an approach that recognises that Brussels has got too big, too bossy, too interfering. We need more for nation states. It should be nation states wherever possible and Europe only where necessary.
“Of course, we need people running these organisations that really understand that and can build a Europe that is about openness, competitiveness and flexibility, not about the past.”
A Downing Street spokeswoman added: “There’s a sense that there is a real moment for change, for a fresh approach. That is the message the Prime Minister is taking to the dinner tonight.”
High on the agenda were early discussions over who will be installed in key jobs in the EU over the coming months, which will shape its future direction.
The Prime Minister’s comments will be viewed in Brussels as a clear indication that he is opposed to Luxembourg’s former premier Jean-Claude Juncker taking over the most crucial role – that of European Commission president – when José Manuel Barroso’s term concludes in October.
Mr Juncker has been nominated as the candidate of the European People’s Party grouping, the largest single bloc in the parliament, which the Tories previously quit over its federalist sympathies.
Before travelling to Brussels, Mr Cameron spoke to a large number of European leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president François Hollande, Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, Slovenian prime minister Alenka Bratusek and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Mr Cameron was attempting to rally support for reform and make clear that it can no longer be “business as usual” for the EU.
At home, the Prime Minister has promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe then give voters an in/out referendum on membership in 2017.
However, Mr Cameron’s approach to pull back powers from Brussels is starkly at odds with that of leaders such as Mr Hollande who, although he has said the EU is remote and incomprehensible, has insisted that “France’s future is in Europe” and remains steadfast in defence of joint policies and common issues.
Yesterday, Mr Hollande said the far-right Front National’s overwhelming victory in his country, a founder member of the EU, was “painful”.
Last night, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander acknowledged that there was an opportunity for reform, but urged Mr Cameron to build alliances within the union to bring about that change.
He said: “There is no doubt that Europe now faces a significant reform moment that must be seized. But going into this vitally important EU meeting, David Cameron seems either unwilling or unable to set out what changes he wants to see at an EU level.
“Only days after the European elections, it is clear that Europe has to work better for Britain, but instead of building alliances with our European partners for reform, his party is proposing pacts with Ukip candidates and deals with fringe political parties in the European Parliament.
“It is not too late for David Cameron to change course and use this week’s EU meeting to set out a clear agenda for reform and build the necessary alliances to deliver it.”
Earlier, former prime minister Tony Blair also stressed the need for reform in the EU but appealed for more politicians to stand up against “reactionary forces” and make the “positive case” for the union.
The reasoning behind Europe today was “probably stronger than it has ever been” in terms of enabling medium-sized countries to play a role on the international stage, he insisted.
“The rationale today is power,” Mr Blair told the BBC. “For a country like Britain, if you want to exercise weight and power and influence, you have got to do it through alliances and the obvious alliance for us is the one literally on our doorstep. Europe has got to get away from this notion that the whole purpose is to diminish the power of the nation state and recognise that Europe works best if nation states come together and co-operate on matters where they need the collective weight of Europe to prevail.”
Asked whether Labour leader Ed Miliband should be changing his stance on the EU, Mr Blair replied: “I would advise him to stay firm. It is not as if yielding to that pressure from Ukip has actually done the Conservative Party any good at the present time.
“For the Labour Party, if it decides to follow Ukip, either on its anti-Europe platform or, even worse frankly, on its anti-immigration platform, then all that will happen is that it will confuse its own supporters and it won’t actually draw any greater support.”
Veteran Tory minister Ken Clarke said the government needed to set out sensible reforms and show how remaining in the EU was in Britain’s national interest.
He said: “We have to make the intelligent case and what sensible reforms we can actually make of the EU that mainstream politicians across the rest of Europe are likely to agree to.”
Asked why the Lib Dems had performed so badly in the polls, the former chancellor replied: “Most pro-Europeans didn’t vote. We need to articulate the case as to why it is in the national interest, particularly [to] younger people whose future it is, that our prosperity, our political security, our role in the world actually depends on our being a leading member of the EU.”