David Cameron will call for a vote from fellow EU leaders on the next European Commission president if there is an attempt to rubber-stamp Jean-Claude Juncker in the role.
The prime minister will risk deepening divisions between the UK and EU by forcing leaders from across the 28-member bloc to vote on the issue at the European Council summit this week unless his counterparts are prepared to consider an alternative candidate.
The move would mark a distinct break from the way that the commission president is usually chosen, with the nomination agreed by consensus between the leaders.
Mr Cameron’s decision to oppose Mr Juncker’s nomination looks set for failure, after nine centre-left leaders, including French president Francois Hollande and Italy’s Matteo Renzi, declared their support for Mr Juncker – the candidate nominated for the presidency by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).
The EPP is the largest party in the European Parliament following the elections last month, but Mr Cameron has made clear he will “fight this right to the very end” rather than allow the European Council, made up of leaders of EU governments, to rubber stamp Mr Juncker’s appointment.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith yesterday waded into the debate, saying that if EU leaders back Mr Juncker, it would be “flicking two fingers” at voters across the continent who had concerns about Brussels.
Mr Duncan Smith, a prominent Eurosceptic within the cabinet, said: “I was talking to the prime minister the other day and he said there are a load of countries there who share his view on this, they think this is the wrong man, the Italians were saying it, many were saying it, even privately, I understand, many Germans say it.”
The Work and Pensions Secretary said Mr Juncker was “by no means a reformer” and backed the prime minister’s stance. He indicated he would be prepared to vote against EU membership in the referendum promised by Mr Cameron in 2017, even if the prime minister recommended staying in after a renegotiation.
If Mr Juncker got the job of European Commission president there would still be the possibility of reform if EU leaders were committed to it, but if they did not follow that course it would be “very bleak” for Britain’s chances of remaining within the EU.
“So the key question really is are these governments of Europe prepared, regardless now who becomes president, to actually say this place needs dramatic change and reform – decentralisation, much more power going back to nation states again,” Mr Duncan Smith said.
Mr Cameron was to spell out his concerns to European Council president Herman Van Rompuy at No 10 today, ahead of a two-day meeting of leaders on Thursday and Friday.
Tory former defence secretary Liam Fox said that if Mr Cameron did not “fight a battle and take a bloody nose” over Mr Juncker’s candidacy it would put the EU “on the juggernaut route” to ever closer union.
An opinion poll showed that almost half of Britons would vote to leave the EU under the current membership terms.
The Observer/Opinium poll found that 48 per cent of people would “definitely” or “probably” vote to leave the EU, while 37 per cent would definitely or probably vote to stay in.
The poll found that if Mr Cameron was able to secure a deal which “redefined the terms of Britain’s membership”, 42 per cent would definitely or probably vote to remain in the EU, with 36 per cent saying they would probably or definitely vote to sever ties with Brussels.