A failure by European leaders to embrace reform will result in "very bleak" prospects for Britain's continued membership of the EU, Iain Duncan Smith said on Sunday as David Cameron prepared to launch a last-ditch attempt to block Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next European commission president.
In a sign of how Juncker's appointment could strengthen the hand of Eurosceptic members of the cabinet, the work and pensions secretary said the strong support among other EU leaders for the former Luxembourg prime minster amounted to "flicking two fingers" at the electorate.
Duncan Smith told BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics: "If they give Jean-Claude Juncker a job this is like literally flicking two fingers at the rest of Europe and saying to all the people out there, 'We know that you voted the way you did but you are wrong and we are just going to show you how wrong you are by carrying on as though nothing happened.'"
Duncan Smith warned of grave consequences if the appointment of Juncker were followed by a failure to embrace "drastic change and reform" in the EU. He said: "If they don't do that then it does make the prospect for Britain being in Europe very bleak indeed."
The outspoken remarks by the former Tory leader, who worked with the Labour party to defy John Major over the Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s, came as Cameron prepared to warn the European council president, Herman Van Rompuy, that he will fight to the end to block Juncker.
The prime minister will tell Van Rompuy in Downing Street that he will demand that an unprecedented vote is held at an EU summit this week if the European council president believes Juncker has sufficient support. Nick Clegg will also meet Van Rompuy in London on Monday to show there is cross-party concern about the planned appointment, which moved a step closer at the weekend as the EU's main centre-left leaders threw their weight behind Juncker.
Cameron's tactics are designed to flush out Angela Merkel, the centre-right German chancellor, and Matteo Renzi, the centre-left Italian prime minister, who are understood to have told Cameron in private that they have severe doubts about Juncker. Duncan Smith indicated that the prime minister had told him Merkel and Renzi had shared in private their misgivings about the Luxembourger.
The work and pensions secretary 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. But this is the problem with the EU. It's locked in this ridiculous process that because they took a decision before the elections they must somehow stand by that."
It is understood that Merkel and Renzi share Cameron's view that Juncker, a classic Brussels fixer during his 19 years as prime minister of Luxembourg, symbolises the EU's troubled past, which helped to contribute to a high vote for fringe parties on the left and right in the recent European elections.
Merkel and Renzi are also understood to have concerns about the spitzenkandidaten system, in which the main pan-EU groups in the European parliament nominated a candidate for commission president. Juncker is the candidate of the EPP, the main centre-right group, which won the most seats in last month's election.
Cameron says the spitzenkandidaten system threatens the power of the EU's 28 heads of government in the European council, who were given the power in the Lisbon treaty to nominate the commission president, taking account of the European elections.
The prime minister will tell Van Rompuy that the leaders supporting Juncker should make clear at the EU summit why they support him and why they support the spitzenkandidaten system. Merkel is backing Juncker after she faced a domestic backlash when she suggested in the immediate aftermath of the European elections that she would support a wider range of candidates. Renzi is supporting Juncker in the hope of easing austerity measures.
Van Rompuy wants EU leaders to have a general discussion about the challenges facing the EU over the next five years at a dinner in Ypres on Thursday night. He wants to avoid a row in the sensitive setting of the dinner, being held to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, by delaying discussions about Juncker until Friday afternoon in Brussels. But Cameron has told Van Rompuy that it would be absurd to discuss the challenges of the future without discussing the next commission president.
Duncan Smith defended Cameron's tactics as he said it was right to challenge EU leaders. He said: "We tend historically, no matter who is in government – Tony Blair or whatever – to make the big noises in Europe because we say it as it is quite often, and don't do all of these behind the scenes deals. The truth is it [the EU] needs at the moment, as the prime minister is doing, to be roughed up a bit about this."
Downing Street believes there is still a small chance that Van Rompuy may delay negotiations to avoid the unprecedented nomination of a European commission president against the wishes of a large EU member state. But the prime minister will press for a vote if he believes that Van Rompuy is embarking on a stalling tactic and will eventually support Juncker.
Labour, which is also opposed to Juncker, will claim that his nomination would mark a significant failure by Cameron on the grounds that he has once again misjudged Merkel. Cameron was forced in 2011 to become the first UK prime minister to veto an EU treaty – on the eurozone fiscal compact – after he pressed Merkel too hard on concessions for the City.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, who has instructed Labour MEPs not to support Juncker, said: "There can be no excuses. David Cameron has a clear mandate from political parties here in the UK – including Labour – to build consensus across Europe for an alternative candidate for president of the commission. Getting the right candidate is ultimately a test of David Cameron's influence with our allies to secure the best deal for Britain in Europe."
But Duncan Smith highlighted the significance of the impact of the Juncker row when he suggested that cabinet ministers should be free to campaign for a no vote in the prime minister's planned in/out referendum in 2017.
He said he would support the prime minister as he seeks to reform the EU but added: "I think at the end of the day every elected MP has a free vote and they have to take the decision of their conscience.
"The answer is, with something as big as this, you have to vote for what you think what's best for your country and I will help support and assist the prime minister in getting the best deal and then I'll take a view on that when it comes back; I'm not persuaded one way or the other at the moment."
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