David Cameron has intensified his campaign to block Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next president of the European commission, with No 10 warning like-minded EU leaders his appointment would amount to a "stitch-up".
As Labour joined the Tories and Liberal Democrats in rejecting Juncker's candidacy, Cameron claimed the attempt by the European parliament to install the former Luxembourg prime minister amounted to a power grab "through the back door".
He called for a "consensual candidate" to be agreed in talks with Angela Merkel and his Swedish and Dutch counterparts – Fredrik Reinfeldt and Mark Rutte – at the Swedish prime minister's summer home in Harpsund.
Reinfeldt, one of Cameron's closest allies in the European Union, said it was vital that the UK remained a member of the EU. Der Spiegel reported last week that Cameron had told Merkel at the recent EU summit Britain would be more likely to leave if Juncker were appointed European commission president.
"It is of the utmost interest and importance to the rest of Europe that Britain stays in the EU," the Swedish prime minister said at the Harpsund meeting.
The four EU leaders all have deep reservations about Juncker, a veteran EU fixer, who is seen by No 10 as embodying an out-of-touch EU elite. They are also uneasy at the way in which the European parliament devised the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidate) system in which the main pan-European groups in the parliament nominated a candidate to head the European commission.
Officials in the parliament say that the system is in line with the Lisbon treaty. This calls on the European council – the body comprising the EU's 28 heads of state and government – to propose a candidate, taking account of the European elections. The centre-right European People's party emerged as the largest group in the elections which means Juncker's name should be sent to parliament for approval under the Spitzenkandidaten system. The Lisbon treaty says the parliament must approve the commission president.
Cameron made clear he wants to block the system. As he arrived at the Harpsund meeting Cameron called for "less pointless interference" in the EU, adding: "The democratically elected leaders of the EU should be the ones who choose who should run these institutions rather than accept some new process which was never agreed."
A No 10 source said: "The prime minister will warn against accepting a power-shift through the back door and handing more responsibility to the European parliament. And he will highlight the risk of breaking the treaty rules in such a way. Such a move could set a dangerous precedent for the future.
"The European council should work together to find a consensual candidate. That is how it has traditionally approached the issue and it is important to do that again this time. Elected national leaders should not accept rules being broken on the pretext of democracy. It is the complete opposite – a stitch-up dressed up as an election."
Reinfeldt endorsed Cameron's criticism of the parliament's new system though he declined to criticise Juncker personally. He said: "It is an important principle to see a balance between the institutions. The presentation of the Spitzenkandidaten isn't in accordance with how the Lisbon treaty is set up."
In a sign of the battle between EU leaders and the European parliament, the parliament's main spokesman challenged Reinfeldt's claims. Jaume Duch tweeted after Reinfeldt's remarks: "Treaty doesn't forbid political parties to announce their candidates to the post or to fight for them."
Merkel has moderated her language about Juncker in the face of a strong domestic backlash after she appeared to support a wider range of candidates. The German chancellor said again last night that she would work towards achieving a majority for Juncker in the European council.
The change of tack by Merkel means Cameron needs to assemble a "blocking minority" among EU leaders to end the Juncker bid, handing the decisive say to the new Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi. Italian support would be enough to form a blocking minority along with the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Britain has high hopes that Renzi, whose Democratic party overtook Merkel's CDU as the largest party in the European parliament after winning 40.8% of the Italian vote in the European elections, will come on side. Renzi has raised concerns about the system proposed by the European parliament.
Reinfeldt tried to introduce a relaxed feel to the Harpsund meeting by taking his fellow three EU leaders out on a rowing boat on Harpsundssjön, the lake next to his summer residence. Reinfeldt rowed Cameron, Merkel and Rutte who all wore life jackets.
The Harpsund meeting was scheduled last year to discuss EU reform. The agenda will still focus on promoting economic growth and wider reform though a large part of the talks will focus on Juncker.
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