BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders on Friday picked former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker to become the bloc’s new chief executive despite Britain’s outspoken opposition, further alienating the U.K. from its continental partners.
With the move, the EU leaders broke a decades-old tradition of choosing the president of the European Commission by consensus. Summit chairman Herman Van Rompuy said 26 of the bloc’s 28 countries voted for Juncker, with only Britain and Hungary opposing him.
“Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war,” British Prime Minister David Cameron declared after the vote, calling the long-time Brussels insider “the wrong person” for the high-profile job of leading the bloc of 500 million people.
“This is a bad day for Europe,” Cameron added. “This whole process has simply reinforced my conviction that Europe needs to change.”
The 59-year-old Juncker still needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament before replacing Jose Manuel Barroso on Nov. 1 as the head of the EU’s powerful executive arm, which is in charge of drafting legislation, overseeing countries’ budgets and policing the EU’s single market.
“I really believe he is a committed European and a political leader with exceptional experience,” Barroso said.
But Cameron views Juncker as the embodiment of a pro-integration, consensus-favoring, empire-building Brussels clique who won’t return powers to nations — something that voters appeared to want after eurosceptic parties made serious gains in May’s European Parliament elections.
“If you believe in a principle, you should stand up for it,” Cameron said. “I’m deadly serious to fight for EU reforms.”
The British leader also called the decision to abandon the consensus process “a serious mistake.”
“By working together we could have found another candidate,” he said.
Juncker, who governed tiny Luxembourg for almost two decades, played a crucial role in shaping the shared euro currency and led the finance ministers governing the 18-nation currency zone through the financial crisis that threatened the euro’s very survival.
For his part, Cameron is haunted both by increasingly euroskeptic lawmakers of his Conservative Party and the rising UK Independence Party, which advocates leaving the EU. He has vowed to diminish the power of bureaucrats in Brussels before holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017, provided he wins re-election next year.
Cameron said Juncker’s appointment makes it more difficult to make the case at home for the benefits of EU membership.
“The job has got harder, the stakes are higher,” he said.
Some EU leaders sought to appease Britain to make sure the island nation won’t choose to leave the bloc but others appeared upset by Cameron’s outspoken campaign.
“They cannot alone block the 26 or 27 others countries that agree,” Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo said.
Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said Britain is an important partner pushing for reforms but warned that a nation which ships half of its exports to EU nations shouldn’t lightly flirt with leaving the bloc.
“In the United Kingdom, some people obviously need to wake up and smell the coffee: the European Union is a very good thing for the United Kingdom,” he said.
Juncker is expected to be approved by parliament on July 16, as both his center-right bloc and the main center-left Socialists and Democrats have said they will support him. In return, the center-left leaders seek to get other top EU jobs, including the position of foreign policy chief, currently held by Catherine Ashton.
John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed reporting.
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