Angela Merkel 'to oust Jean-Claude Juncker' as Europe splits deepen over Brexit response
Angela Merkel could move to oust Europe’s federalist chief Jean-Claude Juncker 'within the next year', a Germany government minister has said, in a sign of deepening European divisions over how to respond to Britain’s Brexit vote.
The German chancellor’s frustration with the European Commission chief came as Europe split over whether to use the Brexit negotiations as a trigger to deepen European integration or take a more pragmatic approach to Britain as it heads for the exit door.
“The pressure on him [Juncker] to resign will only become greater and Chancellor Merkel will eventually have to deal with this next year,” an unnamed German minister told The Sunday Times, adding that Berlin had been furious with Mr Juncker “gloating” over the UK referendum result.
Mr Juncker’s constant and unabashed calls for “more Europe”, has led to several of Europe other dissenting members – including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – to lay some of the blame for Brexit at his door.
Even before he was appointed President of the European Commission - against the wishes of David Cameron - concerns were raised about Mr Juncker's alchohol consumption which were dismissed as a "smear campaign" by his officials.
At the time The Telegraph and several other newspapers reported officials worrying about Mr Juncker having "cognac for breakfast" and rolling through long negotiations fortified with large quantities of claret and brandy.
A week before the UK referendum vote a video emerged of an apparently-drunk Mr Juncker taken at a May 2015 EU summit welcoming Viktor Orban, the hardline Hungarian prime minister, as "the dictator" before giving him a playful slap on the cheek.
"The dictator is coming," Mr Juncker is heard to say, before locking a shocked Mr Orban in a clumsy embrace while Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council looked on, visibly embarrassed.
Since the June 23 vote both the Czech and Polish foreign ministers have called publicly for Mr Juncker to resign – moves that one senior EU official dismissed last week as “predictable”. However, the rumblings from Berlin now represent a much more serious threat to Mr Juncker’s tenure.
The split also offers a glimmer of hope for British negotiators who are preparing for fractious EU-UK divorce talks and are desperate to avoid a repeat of February’s failed negotiations which - controlled as they were by Mr Juncker and the Commission - left David Cameron without enough ‘wins’ to avoid Brexit.
“Everyone is determined that this negotiation is handled in the European Council – i.e. between the 27 heads of government – and not by the Commission, the eurocrats and the EU ‘theologians’ in Brussels,” a senior UK source told The Telegraph.
In a signal that battle has partly already been won, Mrs Merkel pointedly met with French and Italian leaders in Berlin last week, excluding Mr Juncker from the conversation.
The Commission has also declined to fight the Council for the role “chief negotiator”, according to an account of a meeting of senior EU officials seen by The Telegraph.
British strategists hope that creating a much broader negotiation that includes the UK’s role in keeping Europe geopolitically relevant through its deep Nato ties, defence contributions and links to Washington, they can avoid a narrow tit-for-tat negotiation on trade where the UK has only very limited leverage.
Mrs Merkel’s anger reflects a growing schism in Europe between those, like Mr Juncker and the French and Belgian leaders, who want to see “more Europe” after Brexit, and those, like Mrs Merkel and her powerful finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble who believe that would be “crazy”.
Prior to the Brexit vote senior European Commission officials were privately jubilant about the opportunity that a British ‘leave’ vote would present to complete the European project, sucking reluctant countries like Poland into the Euro “within five years”.
Since Brexit, French ministers have been far less conciliatory to the UK than German, openly salivating at the prospect of UK-based financial businesses relocating to Paris, with Francois Hollande, the French President, saying that the UK must not delay and “face the consequences”.
Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said that he was working out ways to make Paris – as opposed to Dublin or Frankfurt – the most attractive place for relocating businesses. “To major international companies I say, 'Welcome to Paris! Come invest in France’,” he said.
Fearful that French and Italian calls for deeper integration could ultimately mean Germany picking up the bills for ailing French and southern EU economies, Mrs Merkel has moved to temper that view, calling for Britain to be given time to negotiate its exit.
At the same time Germany is quietly forming an alliance with Poland and other eastern and Baltic states to head off the calls for “more Europe” from France, Italy and Belgium.
The first signs of whether the other 27 European states can maintain a united front against the UK will come on September 16 when they meet in Bratislava – not Brussels – to discuss their common position towards the UK.
Germany has already said it envisages some form of “Associate Membership” for the UK although it has ruled out compromise over the fundamental question of whether the UK can have access to the single market while refusing to accept the free movement of people.
This sticking point – which was the main bone of contention in the February renegotiation – remains fundamentally unresolved.
[Ed: Juncker has also claimed to be in contact with extraterrestrials.]