British Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the media upon arrival at the European Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, May 27, 2014. European Union leaders on Tuesday sought a way to bounce back from the weekend’s landmark elections that saw a partly hostile and largely apathetic public question their project of closer cooperation as never before. (AP Photo/Eric Vidal)
BRUSSELS (AP) — British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recurring complaint that the European Union is “too big, too bossy, too interfering” gained traction at an EU summit on Tuesday, after election results that underscored voter apathy and hostility forced government leaders across the bloc to consider profound change.
Protest voters turned out in droves while over half the 28-nation bloc’s electorate failed to muster enough interest to go to their polling stations for European Parliament elections — giving a massive thumbs-down to how the EU functions. The anti-EU UK Independence Party topped the polls in Britain, and in France the extreme-right National Front overwhelmed all its rivals.
On Tuesday, Cameron said that “Europe should concentrate on what matters — growth and jobs — and not try to do so much.”
The British leader had often seemed an outsider at EU summits where leaders have long sought ever closer union. But t his time, his EU peers were listening attentively, and he found his call to limit the scope of the EU’s executive Commission even echoed by French President Francois Hollande.
Often the first to call for a strong and large EU, Hollande now said that the Commission, which proposes laws and runs much of the EU’s day-to-day affairs, “must be more focused on its priorities, show more efficiency where it is needed and not add to things where it is unnecessary.”
In a strong rebuke of the office of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Hollande said that “it is the practice that needs to change. It is simplification that is called for.”
“I want that. Everybody wants that,” Hollande said in language almost remininscent to that of Cameron.
The British prime minister also got support for his stance that Brussels needed to return many powers to its 28 member nations as soon as possible.
“The answer to the vote is less rules and less meddling from Europe,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
Perhaps the tipping point turning the electorate against the EU came last year, when it was unable to address record unemployment crippling some member nations hit by the financial crisis while at the same time trying to ban refillable olive oil jugs from restaurant tables. The olive oil measure was quickly pulled back, yet it became emblematic to many for how the EU meddles in minor issues while losing sight of the big picture.
Cameron has promised his country a referendum on EU membership in 2017, raising the prospect of one of the biggest European nations leaving the EU.
“For Sweden and for the EU, it is of the utmost importance that Britain stays inside the EU and that we also take into account the situation we have in Britain when we formulate a new mandate,” said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Analysts also saw a tilt toward Britain’s views.
“Now Francois Hollande talking about limiting EU actions, more and more people beginning to sound like Cameron, this will strengthen his position seeking reforms,” said Anand Menon, professor of European Politics at King’s College London.
One of the first battles for the new Europe was already shaping up — over the post of EU Commission chief after the departure of Barroso in October.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and longtime leader of the group of nations with the euro currency, is seen as a master dealmaker in backrooms over many years and a committed defender of EU unity and closer cooperation.
Cameron refused to elaborate on other possible names for the post but said in a thinly veiled reference to Juncker that he wanted people who were “not about the past.”
After backing Juncker during the election campaign, German Chancellor Merkel said that since no group had a distinct majority in parliament, “therefore we must surely also look at a wider set of personalities.”
If Juncker gets enough of the 751 EU lawmakers to support him, he will still have to convince the overwhelming majority of government leaders. The whole process could take several weeks but in the end EU leaders could still go for a candidate of their liking.
For Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party that drew more votes than Cameron’s Conservatives in the EU election and is fully anti-EU, choosing Juncker would be yet more proof that the EU parliament was tone deaf to change.
“You know, there is a big dissident voice now in this parliament. And yet, I just sat in a meeting where you wouldn’t have thought anything had happened at all, and it was business-as-usual,” Farage said after the conference of party leaders.
Gregory Katz contributed to this story from London.