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UK's Cameron urges leaders to listen to EU voters

British Prime Minister David Cameron will launch an assault against "business as usual" at a summit in Brussels on Tuesday, calling on his fellow EU leaders to set clearer and simpler priorities that address the concerns of frustrated voters.

After resounding victories for the far-right in Britain, France and Denmark, and a strong performance by populist or Euroskeptic groups in many other EU countries in European elections, Cameron is under pressure to shore up his position at home and deliver on long-promised changes in Europe.

British Prime Minister David Cameron
Getty Images
British Prime Minister David Cameron

In a series of phone calls in recent days, he has spoken to six EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and will make further calls on Tuesday, ahead of a post-election summit over dinner.

"Fellow leaders have agreed that it is an important moment for the European Council to set out its views on the future of the EU and provide clear direction of what is expected from the next European Commission," Cameron's spokesman said late on Monday in reference to the flurry of phone calls.

One of Cameron's immediate objectives is convincing other leaders that Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, is not the right kind of person to lead the European Commission, with its sweeping legislative powers.

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Juncker, a long-time advocate of a more federal Europe, has been chosen by the EU's main center-right political group, the European People's Party, to be their candidate for Commission President, arguably Brussels' most powerful job.

With the EPP having won the most votes in the European elections, clinching 213 seats in the 751-seat European Parliament, Juncker is in pole position to secure the post, a point he firmly underlined on Monday.

But Cameron has concerns that Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg for 19 years and at the heart of European politics for decades, is too much in the mode of old-school federalists rather than someone dynamic to lead change, EU officials say.

No commission names

While Cameron has been relatively outspoken about his reservations, he is not alone, with some northern and east European leaders sharing his concerns, the officials say.

Tuesday's summit will not include any detailed discussion of specific candidates for the presidency, with leaders instead talking broadly about the characteristics and skills they think they need in the institution for the coming years.

With the EU having to tackle big questions about the pace of its own integration, how to balance the relationship between the 18 countries that share the euro and the 10 that are outside the currency union and issues of geopolitics and energy security, appointing the right Commission president is critical.

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Under the Lisbon Treaty, leaders are responsible for nominating a candidate "taking into account" the elections to the European Parliament. Whoever they nominate must then be approved by a simple majority in parliament.

Juncker has only just started consultations to see what sort of support he can garner in parliament, and EU leaders are not going to jump into a nomination, so the process is likely to unfold slowly over the coming weeks or months.

But Tuesday's summit - the first opportunity for all 28 leaders to assess the political shifts caused by the elections - will be important in establishing where allegiances lie.

"It will be too early to decide about names," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs summits of EU leaders, made clear in a letter sent to them last week.

"We will talk about the process leading to the European Council proposing a candidate for the future presidency of the Commission... and how to organise our work over the coming weeks."

While Cameron may have deep reservations about Juncker, he and others may not be able to block him in the end.

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According to EU rules, the nominee must be approved by a 'qualified majority' in the European Council. What that means in practice is that if Germany, France and most other member states supported a candidate, Britain would struggle to block it.

He would need to rally countries representing 38 percent of the EU's total population - that's 190 million people - which could prove a very tall order. At the same time, Germany and others may not want to push Cameron to the edge.

With Britain's relationship with the EU in turmoil and Cameron having promised a referendum on continuing EU membership before the end of 2017, leaders such as Merkel are keen to do what they can to convince Cameron to stay in the club.

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