Northern Ireland’s longest-serving MEP last night warned that Britain could exit Europe without a proper debate after an arch-federalist was voted effective EU head.
Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson spoke out in alarm at developments after the Brussels insider Jean-Claude Juncker was appointed president of the European Commission.
“In all my 25 years as an MEP I have never experienced a situation like this,” Mr Nicholson said.
“It is very worrying because the EU is critical to Northern Ireland’s future,” he added, citing the way that farmers, small businesses and infrastructure have benefited.
David Cameron was left isolated yesterday as his fellow-EU leaders rejected his pleas and voted 26-2 to nominate former Luxembourg PM Mr Juncker for president, in a departure from the tradition that Commission chiefs are chosen by consensus among member states. Only the Hungarian PM Viktor Orban joined his UK counterpart against Juncker.
Mr Nicholson said: “Even during the time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister the European leaders said we want Britain to stay. Now they are saying: ‘on you go’.”
Mr Cameron said his fellow leaders had made “a serious mistake”, but insisted that he did “the right thing” in taking an outspoken stand against the appointment – which must now be confirmed by the European Parliament in a vote on July 16.
“This is a bad day for Europe. It risks undermining the position of national governments, it risks undermining the power of national parliaments and it hands new power to the European Parliament,” he said.
Mr Nicholson said: “This decision today could precipitate the UK making the decision to get out without a proper debate.
“It is very worrying because the EU is critical to Northern Ireland’s future: we have a land frontier with a eurozone country and our farmers and small businesses and infrastructure have benefited, never mind the peace fund, which is e2 billion.
“We need all the facts on what Europe costs us and what it gains us before we do something radical and irreversible.”
Mr Cameron said: “In a Europe crying out for reform, we have gone for the career insider.”
Challenged over whether the outcome would harm his chances of securing the renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership he has promised before an in/out referendum in 2017, Mr Cameron said: “The job has got harder. It makes it harder and it makes the stakes higher.
“This is going to be a long, tough fight and frankly sometimes you have to be prepared to lose a battle in order to win a war. It has only stiffened my resolve to fight for reform in the EU, because it is crying out for it.”
And asked directly if he might end up recommending a British exit in the referendum, he said: “I believe Britain’s national interest lies in reforming the EU, holding a referendum about that reform in the EU and recommending that we stay in a reformed European Union.
“Has that got harder to achieve? Yes. Is it still the right thing to do? Yes. Will I give it absolutely everything I have got to achieve it? Yes, I will.”
Mr Cameron insisted he had taken “some small steps forward” by securing changes to the text of a document setting out the EU’s strategic agenda for the next five years to make clear that the 28-nation bloc is ready to address British concerns about its direction of travel and accepts that its commitment to “ever-closer union” does not preclude individual members taking their own decisions on the pace of integration.
He also secured agreement on a review of the process of selecting future Commission presidents, arguing that giving the job to the candidate of the largest political grouping in the European Parliament risked handing the power of appointment over to MEPs making backroom deals.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “On Europe, David Cameron has now become a toxic Prime Minister. He cannot stand up for Britain’s national interest because when he supports something, he drives our allies away.”