BRUSSELS - Britain's David Cameron headed for defeat at an EU summit Thursday after being abandoned by his allies in a battle to block the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission chief.
European Union leaders gather at the World War I killing fields of Ypres in Belgium to kick off two days of fiery talks in what is the most bitter dispute seen in Europe since the height of the euro crisis.
After commemorating the start of the 1914-18 war, the 28 heads of state and government will hold an informal dinner to set the bloc's new five-year policies, with the Juncker row officially banned on Thursday, but the atmosphere expected to be strained.
With tensions high between Cameron and his European peers, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy is to issue a statement after the dinner.
After posing in a rowing-boat just two weeks ago with anti-Juncker allies the Dutch and Swedish premiers, Cameron saw the pair abandon the cause on the eve of the summit.
"We will support Juncker's candidacy," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told parliament shortly after Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt made a similar statement before a Swedish parliament committee.
As for Germany's Angela Merkel, who was also in the boat and originally reticent over the choice of centre-right Juncker, she too has since changed her tune.
Even centre-left leaders have backed Juncker's contentious candidacy, leaving Cameron with a single known ally at the summit table - Hungary's much-criticised Viktor Orban.
Leaders remember war dead
Cameron has blasted the former Luxembourg premier, who until last year was Europe's longest-serving leader, as a tired face and a federalist unlikely to promote reforms able to convince British voters to remain inside the EU at an in/out referendum in 2017.
The summit "will be rich in emotions, rich in events, rich in substance," said a senior EU diplomat.
Keen to avoid embarrassing friction between Britain and others at the Ypres ceremony held to honour peace, Van Rompuy has demanded the 28 EU leaders avoid the Juncker dispute until Friday, diplomats said.
"We are not perfect but for many people outside Europe we are still ... a model of peace, of democracy, of prosperity," Van Rompuy said last week.
On Friday, Cameron wants Van Rompuy to call an unprecedented vote by EU leaders over Juncker's nomination, rather than take a decision by consensus which has been the usual practice.
Adding salt to London's wound, Merkel said on Wednesday it would be "no tragedy" should Juncker win the prestigious Commission job with less than a unanimous vote.
The Commission, or EU executive, is the only Brussels institution able to propose legislation. It also polices the rules of the single market and recently won the power to oversee national budgets.
The British leader told Van Rompuy this week that he also opposed the fact that Juncker was put forward by the European Parliament's conservative group - the EPP - which lost seats but still emerged as the largest single group after May elections.
Avoiding 'power grab'
"I believe that the European Commission president should be chosen by the elected heads of government and heads of state on the European Council.
That is the right approach and it is wrong to sign up to this power grab by the parties of Europe and the European Parliament," Cameron said Wednesday.
Juncker's appointment moreover is part of a package of top job changes as the EU moves into a new term following the May 25 elections that saw humiliating gains for the anti-EU parties, including victories in Britain and France, against the traditional centre-right, centre-left parties.
Van Rompuy is to step down in November and diplomats and analysts say his replacement by Denmark's young premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt - who made headlines with a selfie with Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela funeral - might please Britain, though not France.
Or Cameron might gain a vital portfolio on the 28-member Commission.
Centre-left powers France and Italy, which are also supporting Juncker, meanwhile are calling on Brussels to boost efforts to pump up economic growth and job creation over the next five years.
Italy's popular young premier Matteo Renzi, who increasingly is taking the lead on the left from French President Francois Hollande, conditioned his support for Juncker on a softening in the German-inspired austerity policies that Brussels has adopted in recent years to tame the eurozone debt crisis.