LISBON, Portugal — The European Union is in deep trouble.
Last month's EU-wide elections produced a surge of support for radicals on the right and left, most of whom want to destroy the 28-nation group.
That’s a reflection of the deep divisions wrought by five years of economic crisis. Unemployment is still stuck at record highs while new problems have opened up: A revanchist Russia looms to the east. Chaos rages on Europe's Middle Eastern doorstep.
None of those issues is topping the agenda as EU leaders prepare for their mid-year summit next week, however. Instead they’re focused on whether a 59-year-old from Luxembourg is the right man for the top job at EU headquarters.
An ugly spat has broken out over the bid by Jean-Claude Juncker, who served for almost two decades as Luxembourg's prime minister, to become president of the European Commission.
British Premier David Cameron is leading a campaign to thwart him. He's warned Britain could quit the EU if Juncker is put in charge.
Heading the other camp, Germany is insisting Juncker represents the people's choice after his center-right supporters won the most seats in last month's elections to the European Parliament. Giving in to the demands of the perfidious Brits, they claim, would undermine the very fabric of European democracy.
"The meaning and purpose of the European elections are at stake," says Elmar Brok, a senior German member of the European Parliament. "This process can't be disregarded because of the internal political problems in the United Kingdom."
The dispute could come to a head next week, when the EU leaders are scheduled to meet in the Belgian city of Ypres to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I before heading to EU headquarters in Brussels for a second day of talks.
Ypres was devastated during four years of trench warfare a century ago. The meeting there is supposed to symbolize European reconciliation: Leaders are scheduled to attend a ceremony beneath the city's Menin Gate, which bears the names of almost 55,000 British Commonwealth soldiers who fell there and have no known graves.
Although some diplomats have suggested delaying the leadership debate to avoid a showdown between Britain and Germany that might cloud the ceremonies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be anxious to find a quick solution.
She’s concerned hostile media coverage in both countries could make the problem more poisonous the longer it drags on.
The British eurosceptic daily The Sun has labeled Juncker "the most dangerous man in Europe" and The Daily Express denounced him as a "federalist fanatic" intent on undermining British sovereignty.
German media are sticking by their own guns.
"The issue is clear: Europeans want Juncker," said an editorial in Bild, Germany's highest-circulation daily. "Anything else would make a farce out of democracy. That might have been acceptable in the old East Germany, or some far-right banana republic, but not in the EU."
At the root of the dispute is a decision by the main political factions in the European Parliament to choose leading candidates according to last month's election.
Under their plan, the candidate of the group with the most seats should become head of the European Commission — the body that drafts EU laws, ensures they’re applied across all 28 members and runs the EU bureaucracy.
That change was supposed to inject some democracy into the system. The outgoing commission president, former Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso, and his predecessors were appointed after behind-closed-door meetings of presidents and prime ministers who engaged in hours of secretive late-night horse-trading.
Juncker's supporters say he should walk into the top job as the chosen candidate of the center-right European People's Party, which won the most votes in the European election.
Cameron claims that would be a distortion of the rules that ignores the huge swing by voters in Britain, France and several other countries toward eurosceptic parties.
In the British view, Juncker represents old-style European federalism determined to drag the continent’s nation-states into an ever-closer union. Cameron insists a fresh approach is needed instead that would reform the EU by handing authority back to national capitals.
The European Parliament's attempt to impose Juncker is a "power grab through the backdoor," he wrote in an op-ed published in several European newspapers last week.
"Voters sent a clear message at last month’s European elections. They are disillusioned with the way Europe is working. ... They want the EU to help them, not dictate to them," the British leader wrote.
"Now is the time to propose a candidate who will convince Europe’s voters we are acting upon their concerns."
It’s not the first time British leaders have sought to block candidates denounced by the London media as too gung-ho on European unity.
In 1994, John Major vetoed the candidacy of Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene. Ten years later, Tony Blair foiled another Belgian bid.
This time around is different because EU rule changes have limited single countries’ powers to veto majority decisions. That means Cameron needs allies.
So far, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has joined the anti-Juncker camp. Sweden's Fredrik Reinfeldt may also come on board. But Cameron needs more if he's to derail Juncker.
His attempts to win Dutch and Italian support seem to have failed. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is reportedly negotiating with Merkel about how much easing of European austerity rules she'll accept in exchange for Rome’s backing Juncker.
Such incentives are likely to outweigh British warnings that a Juncker presidency could make a UK exit from the EU more likely by bringing forward a referendum Cameron has scheduled for 2017.
"It would make people see that if we're not able even to get something like this through, there is no chance of any substantive reform of the European Union," said Daniel Hannan, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament.
"Britain would be voting on membership under the existing deal or leaving, with no sort of half-way house," he said in an interview from Britain.
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Despite the tough talk, there’s still a week to reach a last-ditch deal. A possible scenario would see Juncker "voluntarily" dropping out to make way for a compromise candidate.
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power still has Juncker as an odds-on favorite at 1 to 3. Behind him comes Lithuania's recently re-elected President Dalia Grybauskaite with 4 to 1 and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt with 6 to 1. Either would become the first woman to hold the EU’s top job.
Although Ireland's Prime Minister Edna Kenny has odds of only 12 to 1, many Brussels insiders see him as a good bet. He gets along well with Merkel and British eurosceptics tend to be less wary of the Irish than of their continental neighbors. However, France could be a problem because Ireland's liberal tax laws haven't won Kenny many friends in Socialist-run Paris.
It's unclear how much Europe's citizens care about all that. Less than 44 percent voted in the European elections. Among those who did, one poll said, just 8.2 percent had even heard of Jean-Claude Juncker.