Cameron: Boxed into a tight corner
David Cameron’s incompetent campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker has exposed his lack of bargaining power within Europe, says Eddie Ford
Just as the Corn Laws haunted the Conservative Party throughout the 19th century, Europe acts as a running sore for the modern-day Tories. Desperate to steal the clothes of the UK Independence Party and appease the Eurosceptics within his own party, David Cameron is trying to come across as a man of principle determined to get a radically reformed and less centralist European Union. A looser trading bloc that will bend to British concerns over labour reforms and ‘competitiveness’, the free movement of people, EU migrants’ access to benefits, and so on. And, most importantly of all, a Europe that he can positively sell to the British public, come the promised 2017 in-out referendum on continued British membership - vote ‘yes’ to both Europe and Cameron’s leadership.
Cameron’s fake Churchillian grandstanding has taken the form of a campaign to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and experienced political fixer, from becoming the next president of the European Commission. A position chosen using the Spitzenkandidaten system, via which the main pan-EU groups in the European parliament nominate a “lead candidate” - Juncker being the preferred candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party. This is the largest grouping in the parliament, to which the Tories used to belong until Cameron abruptly pulled out in 2009 in favour of the rightwing, anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), antagonising many fellow European conservatives in the process. Anyhow, according to normal procedure, Juncker therefore gets the first bite of the cherry, and what a prized cherry it is - the top job in the Euro-bureaucracy.
However, charging into battle without looking over his shoulder to see how many troops he has behind him, or seemingly any plan at all, Cameron has vowed to fight “to the end” - including forcing an unprecedented vote at the European Council this week, in the hope that Angela Merkel and other leaders will blink at the last minute. Some chance, especially when you consider that only a few weeks ago the 55-member ECR “very narrowly” voted to admit the Eurosceptically inclined Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a foe of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which won seven of Germany’s 96 seats for the European parliament in the last elections. True, it was against the wishes of Cameron, but it was the vote of two Conservative rebels in the ECR that swung the result.1 Not a good day for the Tory leader.
David Cameron is particularly aggravated by the Spitzenkandidaten process, which he regards as a backroom power grab by the parliament, because the Lisbon treaty actually gives the EU’s 28 leaders the right to nominate the president - which the European parliament then rubber-stamps. Outrageously, at least in the opinion of Cameron, the council now has to take the outcome of the elections into account before selecting the new EC president. Interestingly enough, Alexis Tsipras of Syriza - poster boy and hero of a large section of the British left - supports the candidacy of Juncker for precisely that very reason: ie, he wants to set the historic precedent of having the EC president elected directly by the European parliament.2 As far as Tsipras is concerned, Juncker won the election - thus he should get the job.
Presumably, Cameron thought it would be a smart idea to turn Juncker into a symbol of everything that is wrong with Europe - the unacceptable face of old Europe. But the Conservative leader will be the new broom that sweeps away the ancien rėgime.
Sadly for Cameron, though happily for Nigel Farage, he has played it totally wrong. In fact, he now faces humiliation over his stance. Something that was cruelly revealed on June 23 by the Polish Wprost magazine, which printed transcripts of secretly taped conversations between Radosław Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, and the former finance minister, Jacek Rostowski. Sikorski has traditionally been very close to numerous senior Tories - whilst at Oxford University, he was even a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club at the same time as Boris Johnson.
In the first conversation, thought to have been taped in spring this year, Rostowski is quoted as saying that no Polish government could agree to Cameron’s renegotiation proposals, “except in return for a mountain of gold” (it is unclear whether the two ministers were discussing Britain’s proposed revision of the principles of free movement within the EU, or more specifically the plans to curb EU migrants’ access to benefits). Sikorski then replies: “It’s either a very badly thought through move, or, not for the first time, a kind of incompetence in European affairs. Remember? He fucked up the fiscal pact. He fucked it up. Simple as that. He is not interested, he does not get it, he believes in the stupid propaganda, he stupidly tries to play the system.” To which Rostowski replies: “His problem is that it’s not his objective - it’s just a short-term propaganda effect.” In another secretly taped conversation, the spokesman for the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, claims the latter “fucked [Cameron] up good” during a conversation with the British prime minister over plans to curb access to benefits in the UK.
Bluntly, it hard to disagree with such an assessment of Cameron’s performance - it has been amateurish and incompetent. Sikorski’s barbed reference to the fiscal pact is quite illuminating. At the end of 2011 Cameron went to Brussels and made a big show of vetoing any amendments to the Lisbon treaty: principally the new fiscal agreement championed by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Apparently, if you were foolish enough to believe Cameron and George Osborne, the pact represented a mortal threat to the British financial system. The City would be regulated and taxed out of existence. Disaster would befall the country if Cameron did not wield his veto.
Yet Cameron’s antics at Brussels were an obvious sleight of hand - the politics of deception. Most, if not virtually all, aspects of the British financial services industry (routine banking, insurance and accounting) that Cameron was supposedly defending from the perfidious bureaucrats were wholly unaffected by the proposed changes to the EU treaty. The wicked ‘Tobin tax’ that so annoyed Cameron had to be agreed by all EU members - how likely was that? Even the toothless regulatory proposals, which in theory could be authorised by qualified majority voting, would in reality have required unanimity - otherwise they would have been a total non-starter. José Manuel Barroso, the incumbent EC president, even tabled a clause making it explicit that the various regulatory measures in the fiscal compact applied only to the euro zone countries and thus would not undermine the single market or permit any “discrimination” against non-euro states - which Cameron haughtily rejected on the spurious ground that they posed a “risk to the integrity of the internal market”, and crap like that.
So what exactly did the prime minister ‘veto’ in 2011? As Sikorski would put it, fuck all. Hence for him to return home from Brussels as though he was a conquering hero was a sick joke, even if the rightwing press was happy to tell its readers that black is white. Instead, rather than displaying his principles, he had just blockheadedly removed himself from the negotiating table, just making it more likely - not less - that the interests of British capital would be sidelined relative to the other competing capitalist powers. More impressive work from Cameron.
Now it looks like history is about to repeat itself - first time as con trick, second time as total farce. David Cameron will not be returning triumphant from the Brussels summit this week, not even his friends in the rightwing press will be able pull off such a conjuring trick this time round. Barring divine intervention, he has no chance whatsoever of preventing Juncker from becoming EC president, let alone pushing through his reforms - and he must know that. Any slender hope he had of blocking the former Luxembourg president must surely have been extinguished on June 21 after nine centre-left leaders - including François Hollande of France and Matteo Renzi of Italy - declared their support for Juncker.
Another blow must have been delivered on June 23 in Downing Street, when Herman Van Rompuy - the incumbent president of the European council - handed Cameron a ‘confidential’ blueprint outlining the EU’s “priorities” for the next five years. Hardly astonishingly, it fails to deliver any of the substantial reforms that Cameron is proposing in order to claim sufficient concessions to win a ‘yes’ vote in the 2017 referendum. The blueprint holds out no prospect of even discussing EU treaty change and absolutely fails to countenance Cameron’s key demand for national parliaments to be given a veto over European legislation.
The undeniable fact is that mainstream politicians of all political hues in Germany and France - and the core countries as a group - want greater centralisation and ‘ever closer union’, not less. That will not change even if the aliens invade. Remember the referendums that were run and rerun in Denmark and Ireland? As we saw, the elites were not satisfied until they got the result they wanted - ie, complete support/acceptance of the Lisbon treaty. The very last the Euro-bureaucrats want is a major, or even minor, renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty - just think of all the hassle. David Cameron will not be allowed to cherry-pick what he wants from Brussels, now or in the future.
Meaning that Cameron’s increasingly futile stance will make for a turbulent summit. In the words of one unnamed EU ambassador, Cameron is “scaring everyone off” with his tactics - turning the UK into a “dangerous partner for all of us”.3 But British officials, on the other hand, believe if the prime minister “caved in” now it would send a signal to other EU members that Cameron will be “weak” in subsequent negotiations on a new deal for Britain ahead of the 2017 referendum. Stupidly, Cameron has boxed himself into a corner - as they say in Polish, he is fucked whatever he does.
The Juncker question is not therefore some trivial or passing issue, but of great significance, as it exposes Cameron’s fundamental lack of bargaining power in Europe - and in turn, thanks to the law of expected consequences in this particular case, strengthened those forces that want to withdraw from the EU altogether. Nigel Farage can easily point out that Cameron will not come back from Brussels triumphantly waving a bit of paper - he cannot even influence who gets to become EC president.
In which case, what will happen in 2017, assuming the Tories are still in office? Ed Miliband has repeatedly asked Cameron - if you only get what suspiciously looks like European crumbs, or less, then how exactly are you going to vote in the referendum? Showing the confusion that is Cameron’s approach to Europe, Downing Street in recent days has hinted that Cameron is prepared to threaten EU leaders that he will recommend a ‘no’ vote in 2017 if Juncker gets elected or if they fail to embrace wide-ranging reforms. A No10 spokeswoman on June 23 Delphically stated that the national leaders of the European council “need to think about the fact” that if David Cameron is re-elected “clearly the decisions” taken by the EU in that period from now until the referendum “will affect British voters’ views of the EU” and is “likely to affect the way they vote in any such referendum”.4
But suddenly advocating a ‘no’ vote runs even greater dangers than his present ‘yes, but’ approach - the least of which will be White House disapproval. Hillary Clinton has made her views clear, telling the BBC on June 13 that “Europe needs Britain” and the UK “brings a perspective and an experience that is very important to Europe, especially post-economic crisis” - which you can more or less interpret as a call for a ‘yes’ vote in 2017 l
1. The Daily Telegraph June 12.
3. Financial Times June 23.
4. The Guardian June 23.