During a break in the meeting, Cameron's words became even more pointed. "A face from the '80s cannot solve the problems of the next five years," he said. Cameron added that if he is defeated in a vote by the heads of other EU member states and Juncker becomes the head of the Commission, that he could no longer guarantee that Britain will remain a part of the EU. Participants at the meeting interpreted his remarks to mean that a further defeat could destabilize his government in London to the extent that an exit referendum would have to be held earlier than planned and that it would very likely result in the British casting a no vote on EU membership.
For conservative Polish Prime Minister Tusk, it was clear how the majority was leaning and he wanted to force a decision that same night. He proposed assigning Juncker the task of negotiating the composition of the next EU Commission. That, he argued, would reveal the extent of support for Juncker -- in other words, it would show whether a majority was willing to oppose Cameron, Orbán and Reinfeldt. Everyone turned to Merkel. She said that she would join Juncker's opponents and form a "blocking minority," as she called it, if a vote were held. That would have spelled the end of Juncker's candidacy, but the vote never happened.
"A half-sentence from her in Juncker's favor would have taken care of the issue," French President Hollande would later tell people close to him. But Merkel made her decision and Cameron's threat was effective -- the threat of a prime minister whose country is expected to vote in 2017 over whether to leave the EU and whose party suffered a resounding defeat in last week's elections to the European Parliament. He managed to sway a German chancellor to his side who, by contrast, had the majority of Germans behind her in a pro-European vote, a result with which she did very little.
In many other countries, this election could hardly be described as a success among voters. At best, the continuous trend of declining voter turnout was stopped at 43 percent, but almost nowhere did turnout increase. It is precisely this voter fatigue that helped many anti-EU populist parties make phenomenal gains at the ballot box. Viewed from this perspective, Europe appears to have been weakened -- the parties at the fringe are eroding Europe's flanks and uncertainty is growing at the EU's very core.
Still, some 78 percent of Germans surveyed prior to the election in a SPIEGEL poll said they believed that the winner in the Schulz-Juncker race should become head of the Commission. It's an opinion shared by Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. "It would be democratically devastating if we said before the election that the winning candidate would become Commission president and then we were to wholly reject that after the election," he said. Faymann has little understanding for Merkel's position. "We are gambling away our credibility among pro-European citizens and strengthening the enemies of Europe."
Looks Like a Conspiracy
More than a few members of the European Council are now wondering whether the chancellor is just trying to buy time, leaving the door open for later compromises. Or whether she is seeking to prevent Juncker from becoming president -- while hiding in the British shadow -- because she doesn't want to see a man appointed president of the European Commission who has the backing of the entire European Parliament and a majority of all European voters. What she is doing may seem prudent from her perspective. But to European voters -- and to some of her counterparts on the Council -- it looks more like a conspiracy.
European Council President Van Rompuy has sought to soothe the different camps. "This is not just about the head of the Commission," he said, adding that it is also a question of the high representative of the Union for foreign affairs. "We also need to discuss the policy program for the next Commission." In the end, Merkel suggested that Van Rompuy should speak with representatives of the governments of all 28 EU member states in order to sound out a solution before the next EU summit at the end of June.
Many disagreed, but they were no longer openly objecting. Merkel's influence proved effective.
One participant at the table, one of those who believed the winning candidate should prevail as the next Commission president, sent SMS texts throughout the meeting to Jean-Claude Juncker.
As the EU leaders met, the former Luxembourg prime minister and Euro Group president sat in a hotel room reading in real-time how Merkel and Van Rompuy, under pressure from Cameron, had distanced themselves from him. With each message he received, he appeared to become even more resolute before determining, "Now I have to do it."
As EU leaders began to leave the meeting after midnight, Juncker's mobile phone started ringing non-stop. In the end, 22 of 28 EU leaders personally called and assured him of their support. "It's Commission president or nothing at all," Juncker told one of them on the phone. He's anticipating that Merkel will soon offer him the position of president of the European Council as Van Rompuy's successor, but he intends to reject it.
Rarely has Merkel been subjected to the kind of pressure she is facing in Brussels right now. At her press conference that night, the German leader didn't hide her annoyance. Addressing the tasks facing the EU in the coming years, she also played down Juncker's importance. "The whole agenda could be implemented by him but also by many others," she said. Of course, the others she referred to were not on the ballot.
'Nobody Really Wants Juncker'
A Merkel staffer remained in the German press room in the European Council headquarters after the chancellor finished her press conference. "Did you see Juncker's appearance on election night, how tired and passionless he appeared to be?" he asked. "If people are now saying that Merkel just buried Juncker, they should really be asking if he buried himself."
In the days that followed, the Merkel camp continued to convey the idea that Juncker somehow didn't truly want the job. They said he often appeared to be burned out, that he doesn't represent the kind of fresh impulse that is needed for Europe and that his supporters wouldn't continue to back him for very long. Their main message, however, was that it is only the German people who are making any fuss whatsoever over what happens with the leading candidates.
And that's only the "light" version of the campaign against the election victor. The heavy lifting in undermining Juncker is being done by the government in London.
"Nobody really wants Juncker, and yet he still has a chance," said one source close to Cameron. She says the resulting product would be a divided and crisis-plagued Europe with a weakened Commission president. She added that Cameron would not hesitate in openly addressing Juncker's faults among EU leaders, "his alcohol problems, his scandals in Luxembourg." And also the question of whether Juncker is suited to lead Europe's most powerful authority, the EU Commission.
Angela Merkel doesn't intend to go that far. Instead, she is pursuing a two-pronged approach. The Brits should be kept in check with the threat that, if need be, a majority vote could be secured without them. That already happened once when member states voted in 2012 to approve the European Fiscal Pact limiting government borrowing over Cameron's vociferous objections. During the next few weeks, there will be many opportunities for the chancellor to exert influence on her British counterpart -- at D-Day commemorations, at joint talks with the Swedish prime minister and at the G-7 meeting.
Meanwhile, Berlin wants to delay decisions on other top posts in Brussels, the goal being that of wearing out Juncker and his supporters in the hope that he might voluntarily eschew the presidency. Previously, all top jobs in Brussels had to be approved by the European Parliament and the European Council. Now, though, the Chancellery has realized, they would have to be rubber stamped by Juncker as well. "Nothing can happen without his yes," Berlin government sources told SPIEGEL.
The Most Time?
And that goes to the heart of the question that will determine Europe's democratic future: Who's got the most time on their side?
Jean-Claude Juncker appears to have less of it. The 59-year-old has seen a lot of Europe, but many Europeans no longer want to see as much of him. He's no friend of the German chancellor and it is true that he initially didn't want this post -- one which he now has to want in order to help establish greater democracy in the European institutions.
With Juncker at its helm, the EU Commission would certainly have stronger political leadership. Precisely because they have a mandate from parliament and voters, he and his commissioners would be in a much stronger position vis-a-vis Brussels' highly self-confident civil service elite. It is also likely that the next European election would attract well-known politicians with the knowledge that if they won, they would automatically become Commission president.
It will be a while before that becomes reality. "If EU leaders (drop Juncker) then they'll need to stay away from parliament for the next five years because it will be a nuclear-waste zone for them," threatened Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Franco-German who is leaving parliament after years as the Green Party's intellectual figurehead at the EU level. Meanwhile, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of parliament with Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party, said: "Of course they will try to portray us as self-regarding parliamentarians whose only job is to address procedural matters. But we have all just been re-elected. We have all the time in the world."
One of the main things Juncker will need is the sustained support of Martin Schulz, whose center-left Social Democrats can provide him with the needed majority in a grand coalition in parliament. In return for his support, Schulz wants a post as a commissioner with some kind of elevated status -- a demand that is in no way unusual in such a political constellation.
But Juncker doesn't have the power to guarantee that on his own. Other countries like Poland are also demanding prominent Commission posts and they have some weight in terms of the EU's proportional regional representation. A potentially bigger hitch is that Merkel's CDU is insisting that it choose Berlin's next Commissioner. "It is my party's express wish that the Christian Democrats again select the next German EU Commissioner," said David McAllister, who was the main candidate in the European election for Merkel's Christian Democrats. "Because the CDU and CSU (its Bavarian sister party) became the strongest force after the European election, with an 8 percent lead over the Social Democrats. Essentially, we won the 'German voting district,'" he says. It's an opinion shared by Chancellor Merkel.
Problems in Berlin?
The Social Democrats are against it. They point to Luxembourg, where the Christian Democrats' leading candidate for Europe, Juncker, also received the support of the Social Democrats who share power in the national government. There, the Social Democrats argue, people think in European terms and not national ones. If nothing is left for Schulz despite this, then the Social Democrats' support for Juncker will diminish.
Merkel, for her part, cannot be totally sure about her strategy. A number of EU leaders want a decision to be made by the June summit in Brussels at the latest. "I would like to see us propose Juncker in the European Council in June," said Austrian Chancellor Faymann. "If we are unable to convince the skeptics, then we'll have to push Juncker through with a qualified majority vote."
The dispute over the EU Commission chief is explosive enough that it could also have the power to drive apart the coalition government in Berlin between Merkel's conservatives and the SPD. Social Democrats in Berlin attentively registered the fact that Merkel indicated she would back Cameron if it were put up to a vote. However, the rules in place for the current government coalition in Berlin hold that Merkel must abstain in such a vote if the SPD doesn't back her position.
Immediately after the polling stations closed, the chancellor telephoned with SPD boss Sigmar Gabriel and ensured him that she wanted to continue with the grand coalition government and that a common solution could also be found in Brussels. Nevertheless, the first cracks are already showing. Speaking to a small number of people in Brussels, Gabriel said, "It cannot be that an anti-European like Cameron can dictate to Europeans what should be done." Another member of Merkel's cabinet says acidly of the chancellor, "She can push through anything in Europe, but not a candidate with whose face appeared on her campaign signs?" Thomas Oppermann, who heads the SPD in German parliament, also spoke out on the issue. "The Christian Democrats' distant relationship to their successful leading candidate is strange," he said, "because what Europe really needs is both: Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz."
Making an Ass of the People
But the chancellor has her own views of Europe's interests. In the course of the euro crisis since 2010, she lost her faith in the European Commission. She believes that, as the institution that is supposed to set the political pace, it has failed. Even as an administrative unit responsible for providing figures and forecasts, she doesn't think the Commission did a good enough job. It's her opinion that EU leaders and the European Central Bank ultimately had to take on responsibility that should have been that of the European Commission.
But now, the genie released by Martin Schulz, when he rose to become the leading candidate for Europe's Social Democrats, can no longer be put back in the bottle. Merkel wasn't pleased with the proceedings from the very start, but she played along and even campaigned for the election victory of Juncker, who is now fighting for the job. She constantly reiterated that it was "not a foregone conclusion" that the winner of the election would get the office, but by doing so, she also underestimated the dynamism that would build behind the race between the candidates in the run-up to the election and how it continues to develop today.
Schulz, the defeated candidate, set the tone for the coming days and weeks and also showed that he could stand up to Merkel. On his way back to his home in Würselen, Germany, last Tuesday, he learned that Merkel and Cameron had refused for the time being to give their support to Juncker, his new ally. "That is a dramatic case of electoral fraud," he shouted into his mobile phone. "That's making an ass out of the people on a grand scale."
By Nikolaus Blome, Horand Knaup, Paul Middelhoff, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Pauly, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Christoph Schult