A summit of European leaders has kicked off in the Belgian town of Ypres. After commemorating the war dead, EU heads travel to Brussels to discuss who should be the next EU Commission president.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy deliberately moved the first day of the EU summit to Flanders, Belgium's Dutch-speaking northern region. On Thursday (26.06.2014), the 28 heads of state and government met in the town of Ypres to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War 100 years ago.
Between 1914 and 1918, Ypres (in Flemish: Ieper) was the scene of some of the biggest battles, where the conflict descended into trench warfare between German and mainly British forces. The small town, with its medieval Gothic cloth hall (pictured above), was almost completely destroyed.
The dozens of military cemeteries around Ypres serve as reminders of the horrors of the Great War. About half a million soldiers died on the battlefields and in the trenches. Each year, thousands of mainly British tourists bring small wooden crosses and red poppies to Ypres to pay tribute to their fallen compatriots.
It was in Ypres in 1915 that the German army first started using poison gas, and as the war progressed, both sides would use toxic chemicals as a weapon.
On Thursday, EU leaders were scheduled to visit the Menin Gate memorial, where a trumpeter sounds the Last Post every night, to unveil a peace bench dedicated to fallen soldiers.
Top priorities for next five years
The heads of state and government will also have their traditional working dinner in Ypres, but given the proximity of former battlefields and cemeteries, it's unlikely they'll spend the meal confronting looming disputes.
Instead, they'll focus on the tasks that lie ahead for the EU over the next five years - the term of office for the next European Commission. Van Rompuy has submitted a four-page document to this end, which contains all the familiar catch phrases: Combating unemployment, innovation and improved industrial and energy policy.
His paper calls for the EU to focus on the most important matters and warns against excessive regulation. He also suggests a more "flexible" handling of the European Stability and Growth Pact. In other words, cash-strapped countries like France and Italy should be able to make more debt, but the legal basis shouldn't be changed.
Germany, in particular, insists on this point. "We are convinced that the stability pact should remain in force as one of the most important elements for overcoming the euro crisis, and that it must not be changed," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the week leading up to the summit.
The socialist and social democratic government heads, led by Francois Hollande (France) and Matteo Renzi (Italy) had demanded a flexible stability pact in exchange for consenting to certain EU appointments.
Debate over Juncker
Only when the summit convenes again in Brussels on Friday will the contentious decision about who should replace outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso be on the table. Sparks are expected to fly - if no consensus is reached, British Prime Minister David Cameron is to demand an open vote on the presidency.
That would be something new in the circle of 28 heads of state and government. Cameron strongly opposes frontrunner Jean-Claude Juncker. For weeks, Cameron has argued that the leading candidate of the strongest group in the European Parliament had no automatic right to the EU's top job.
"The democratically elected leaders of Europe, we should be the ones to choose who should run these institutions, rather than accept some new process which was never agreed on. I think that is important," Cameron said.
However, the British prime minister has few allies among his colleagues, and would be unable to prevent a majority supporting Juncker. Just hours before the summit got underway, both Sweden and the Netherlands said they would be willing to back the conservative candidate.
After some initial hesitation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that she also backed Juncker, the candidate of her conservative European People's Party (EPP). "We have top candidates and Germany supports Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President because the EPP has become the strongest group," she said.
Appeasing the UK
Angela Merkel also wants to accommodate Britain when it comes to other important EU appointments. The posts of EU President, the High Representative for Foreign Policy, and other top positions in the new EU Commission are yet to be divvied out.
"That doesn't mean you can fulfill all your wishes, but it means that one can, perhaps at another point, also consider: What is very important for the UK?" said Merkel after a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Berlin. "What belongs to Europe? what belongs to the nation states? I am willing to talk very constructively with the UK about these things," Merkel said.
Cameron knows that he is supported by all parties in the UK in his rejection of Juncker. The British press also almost unanimously takes issue with the candidacy of the former Luxembourg prime minister, who is seen as too pro-European.
Cameron has threatened that the UK could leave the EU if Juncker is elected Commission president. He has promised to hold a referendum on the UK's membership question in 2017.
Other appointments can wait
The head of the conservative German MPs, Herbert Reul, expects Juncker to be nominated to the position by a majority, despite British resistance. The European parliament would then elect him as Commission president in two weeks. All other EU personnel appointments would have to be postponed, says Reul.
"I am confident that we can agree on the main concerns of the next five years, and that we can confirm the nomination for the Commission president," he told DW. "And I expect the other particulars won't be resolved so quickly, because you also want to take time to include the UK."
It will probably be necessary to hold a special summit of EU heads of state and government over summer to confirm who will be filling other top jobs in the EU. Danish Social Democrat Halle Thorning-Schmidt is a favorite for president of the Council, while Italy has laid claim to the office of the EU foreign affairs chief.
Next week, German Social Democrat Martin Schulz will be re-elected President of the EU Parliament. In return, the socialists have agreed to support Jean-Claude Juncker's nomination as president of the Commission. The result is an informal grand coalition between social democrats and conservatives in the parliament.
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