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After seismic elections, EU leaders assess damage

British PM David Cameron arriving for the meeting

By Robin Emmott and Jan Strupczewski
EUROPEAN Union leaders assessed the continent’s dramatically altered political landscape on Tuesday following European Parliament elections and sought a response to a rising tide of voter frustration.
With far-right, anti-EU parties sweeping to unprecedented victories in France, Britain and Denmark and populists gaining ground elsewhere, the 28 leaders faced tough questions about the future direction of European integration.
Arriving for an informal summit, they sought to avoid an immediate fight over whether Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of centre-right parties that topped the poll, should be nominated as European Commission president, as parliament wants.
Several leaders said they would focus on policies before personalities, giving European Council President Herman Van Rompuy a mandate to conduct negotiations on the agenda and leadership of the next EU executive.
Drawing initial lessons from a bruising election, which handed a quarter of all parliament seats to anti-EU or protest parties, several leaders said they would seek ways to reorient the EU’s work to make it more relevant to citizens.
“The first thing we have to do is to formulate an answer,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose liberal party came fourth, one place behind the anti-Islam Freedom Party, in the Netherlands.
“As far as I’m concerned, that answer contains fewer rules and less fuss from Europe, and focusing Europe on where it can add value to things,” he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservatives were beaten into third place behind the triumphant anti-EU UK Independence Party and the Labour opposition, echoed that line, saying leaders needed to make radical changes.
“The European Union cannot just shrug off these results and carry on as before,” he said. “We need change. We need an approach that recognises that Europe should concentrate on what matters, on growth and jobs, and not try to do so much.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi have delivered a similar message, focused on reviving the economy, but it remains to be seen if they can find common ground on how.
Hollande and Renzi want a softening of budget austerity to allow more public investment to boost growth.
While Cameron is adamant that more powers should be returned to national capitals and wants the phrase “ever closer union” dropped from the EU’s treaty, treaty change is very unlikely.
Instead of picking a name, the leaders were set to discuss what sort of person they want to lead the Commission, the body responsible for drafting EU legislation and enforcing the rules.
The centre-right European People’s Party has chosen Juncker as its candidate for the Commission presidency. Leaders of the main pro-European parliamentary groups met before the summit and mandated Juncker to lead talks to try to find a majority, but it is up to EU leaders to put forward a nominee.
Cameron, facing intense pressure from UKIP, is strongly opposed to Juncker’s candidacy, regarding him as an archetypal European federalist.
Ahead of the summit, he telephoned at least eight EU heads of state and government to discuss his concerns and the wider efforts required to overhaul the way the Union works.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, a Cameron ally, said he disagreed with the principle of parties choosing a so-called ‘Spitzenkandidat’ for the Commission presidency.
“We think this twists the constitution around. It disqualifies many from running for this position,” he said.
The leaders were expected to focus on the qualities needed in the next Commission president and the policy priorities at a time when the EU is tackling issues from energy security to climate change and geopolitics.
“It will be too early to decide about names,” Van Rompuy, who chairs EU summits, said in a letter to leaders last week.
As always, Merkel will be the most important voice. She reaffirmed her backing for Juncker’s candidacy on arrival but said no party had a majority so there would have to be a broad consensus.

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