Juergen Baetz
and Geir Moulson

BRUSSELS: Many political battles are ugly — but toss in 28 nations, high unemployment, angry voters and a skeptical Britain, and the fight over who will be the European Union’s next chief executive may have profound consequences.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has set himself up for a stinging defeat as his vocal campaign to block the front-runner for the top EU job, former Luxembourg prime minister and longtime Brussels insider Jean-Claude Juncker, fails to gain traction.

Many fear that an increasingly isolated Britain could even choose to leave the bloc embracing 500 million people — something that has never happened in the EU’s history.

At their summit today, the bloc’s leaders are set to nominate Juncker as the next president of the European Commission, the EU’s powerful executive arm, which is in charge of drafting legislation, overseeing countries’ budgets and policing the EU’s single market.

“They are about to take what I think is the wrong step,” Cameron said Thursday. “I will stick to my guns, I will stick to my principles, I will insist on that vote.”

Cameron views the EU “too big, too bossy and too interfering” and sought to block Juncker, whom he sees as the embodiment of a pro-integration, consensus-favoring, empire-building Brussels clique that won’t return power to member nations.

Cameron says the strong results last month for skeptic and anti-immigration parties in European Parliament elections in several EU countries, including France and Britain, were a wake-up call that the bloc “must either change or accept further decline.”

However, his anti-Juncker campaign has backfired, raising pressure on a leader who already has pledged to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU and who faces strong competition from a rising anti-EU party.

“Cameron has maneuvered himself into a corner,” said Fabian Zuleeg, head of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank. “His strategy hasn’t worked and it has added to the process of alienation between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union.”

A key figure in the battle has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Following the European elections, in which the 59-year-old Juncker was the top candidate for the center-right bloc that finished first, Merkel initially said the EU’s agenda could be implemented “by him but also by many others.”

That perceived lack of commitment to her fellow conservative, however, prompted a barrage of criticism at home — so Merkel then aligned firmly behind Juncker. Europe’s center-left leaders, led by French President Francois Hollande, followed last week.

“The message to British politicians is that EU member states … would rather risk pushing Britain out of the EU than cause some temporary problems for Merkel,” said Simon Tilford of the Center for European Reform, a British think tank.

Britain had been hoping for support from Germany, the EU’s most populous and economically powerful member, to block Juncker.