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Politics

EU leaders join hands in Ypres ahead of potentially fractious Friday

EU leaders are gathered in Belgium to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The event comes ahead of a meeting at which deep disagreement over who should head the European Commission will be on full display.

European leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande and Britain's David Cameron gathered Thursday at Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, where more than 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers died in the battle of Ypres during World War I. With the exception of the years during which Belgium was under occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II, trumpeters have sounded the haunting British bugle call "Last Post" at the site every day since 1928.

"This shows us what good times we are living in today, thanks to the existence of the European Union and how we have learned the lessons of history," Merkel said on a particularly busy Thursday.

Half a million soldiers perished in western Flanders from 1914 to 1918. The EU leaders planned to honor the dead, before focusing on the bloc's future and its priorities for the five years to come.

'A qualified majority'

Leaders will discuss the next European Commission president on Friday. Merkel supports former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker to replace the departing Jose Manuel Barroso once leaders agree on policy priorities to promote growth, consolidate budgets, create jobs and fight youth unemployment. The Netherlands and Sweden have also joined most of the bloc in supporting Juncker.

"If Jean-Claude Juncker attracts a qualified majority of heads of state and government and also has the support of the European Parliament, then the Lisbon Treaty rules have been followed and the government recommends that Sweden joins this majority," Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said.

Cameron opposes Juncker and has pledged to force an unprecedented vote on the nomination to underline his dissent if, as expected, the other EU leaders decide to press ahead with the appointment. A vote would likely go 26-2 against Cameron, with only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom many in the UK would like to consider politically further to the right, siding with him. That would highlight Britain's isolation within the EU and add to concerns that the country has moved closer to leaving the bloc after a semidetached 41-year membership beginning with the European Economic Community.

The UK Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the bloc, won the most seats in Britain's European elections last month, pushing Cameron's Conservatives into third place. Opinion polls show the British public support Cameron's refusal to compromise and believe he has shown strength by standing up to Europe, despite his isolation.

mkg/rc (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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