YPRES Belgium/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders commemorated the 100th anniversary of World War One at a solemn ceremony in Belgium on Thursday in a show of unity that briefly masked deep disagreement over who should head their most influential institution.
At Menin Gate, a memorial to 50,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the battle of Ypres, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and other leaders to honour the fallen of what became known as the Great War.
They stood together as eight Belgian buglers sounded the Last Post in a symbol of reconciliation among former enemies that barely masked Cameron's isolation among his fellow leaders.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy recalled how "this continent of civilised nations" marched mindlessly to the abyss in 1914, "sleepwalking" into a war that killed millions.
Europe's "collective folly" had ended only after World War Two in 1945, or indeed in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, he said.
"It is up to us - in word and deed - to break that spiral of escalation, to maintain confidence, to safeguard peace, a peace that we can dream of as permanent," he said before the leaders planted paper poppies bearing their national flags in a memorial garden.
Merkel told reporters that Europeans were living in better times today due to the creation of the 28-nation European Union, which showed "how we have learned the lessons of history".
EU officials were at pains to ensure the ceremony was not totally overshadowed by a fierce political battle over the leadership of the European Commission, a decision due to be taken when the summit moves to Brussels on Friday.
But the smouldering row over whether former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker should lead the EU's executive for the next five years hung over Thursday's events, even if it was kept off the dinner table at which leaders were due to debate a 'strategic agenda' for the bloc until 2019.
Merkel voiced determination to go ahead with the nomination once leaders have agreed on policy priorities to promote growth, consolidate budgets, create jobs and fight youth unemployment.
Cameron adamantly opposes Juncker, arguing that the veteran of EU summits is not the right person to drive reform of the Commission and that his appointment would amount to a power grab by the European Parliament, which has demanded his nomination. The British leader was determined to force an unprecedented summit vote to put his dissent on the record, and said there would be unspecified "consequences" if others press ahead.
"My message to my fellow heads of government and heads of state is that this approach that they're contemplating taking is the wrong approach for Europe," he said on arrival.
"They are contemplating choosing someone who I think will struggle to be the voice of reform and change in Europe. When the public in Europe and our nation states are crying out for reform, they're about to take what I think is the wrong step." French President Francois Hollande hinted at other states' impatience with Cameron, saying: "There comes a time when Europe needs to say what we want in terms of people and policies."
A vote looks inevitable, and could go 26-2 against Cameron, with only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban siding with him. That would highlight Britain's isolation and add to concerns that the country is moving inexorably closer to leaving the EU after 41 years of often uneasy, semi-detached membership.
But Britain's friends in the EU said they would work hard to make sure it remained a member despite the rift over Juncker.
"We’re all now responsible for whether the United Kingdom can stay inside the European Union," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who initially sided with Cameron. "I'll do whatever I can for Britain to stay inside the European Union."
The UK Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the bloc, won the most British seats in European elections last month, pushing Cameron's Conservatives into third place.
Juncker, 59, was the leading candidate of the centre-right European People's Party which topped last month's EU poll, in which each of the mainstream political blocs fielded a lead candidate, or "Spitzenkandidat", for the Commission presidency.
Opinion polls show the British public, which will vote in a parliamentary election a year from now, supports Cameron's refusal to compromise and a majority believes he is showing strength by standing up to Europe, despite his isolation.
However, Friday's expected clash is bound to leave a bitter taste, complicating Britain's relations with the next Commission chief at a time when Cameron has promised to renegotiate its relationship with the EU before holding an in/out referendum on British membership in 2017, provided he is re-elected.
"Cameron has lost a lot of goodwill with this behaviour, even among leaders like Merkel who want to help him keep the UK in Europe," a senior EU diplomat said.
"The EU is built on compromise and it's hard to help someone who refuses to compromise," he said.
OLIVE BRANCHES SPURNED
Van Rompuy, who will chair the summit, offered Britain olive branches on the policy agenda and a major economic portfolio in the next Commission but Cameron spurned his offers.
Van Rompuy has suggested leaders meet again on July 17 to make other key appointments, including the choice of his own successor and of the EU's foreign policy chief and economics czar. That would allow for a cooling off period after the row.
Southern European countries led by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi are set to obtain a softening of the way EU budget rules are implemented, which Merkel accepted this week as the price of their support for Juncker, her party's candidate.
"If we care about Europe, we must step up our efforts on growth and employment," Renzi told reporters.
Draft summit conclusions seen by Reuters showed the leaders will agree on Friday to apply the EU rules as flexibly as possible to support growth, taking structural reforms into account when assessing deficits. But diplomats said Berlin and other north European deficit hawks were concerned about the wording and wanted it discussed by leaders.
The leaders will sign an association agreement with Ukraine, despite Russia's attempt to deter Kiev from moving closer to the EU. Former Soviet Georgia and Moldova will also sign such pacts.
The EU leaders will discuss whether to step up sanctions against Moscow over what the West says is its efforts to destabilise Ukraine by supporting separatists in the Russian-speaking east after annexing the Crimea peninsula in March.
(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski in Kortrijk, Belgium and Giselda Vagnoni and Francesco Guarascio in Elverdinge, Belgium; Writing by Luke Baker and Paul Taylor; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Alastair Macdonald)