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Expert Comment: David Cameron and EU Commission Presidency

0119 Prof Bill Jones Tuesday 1 July 2014

Following David Cameron's attempts to block Jean Claude Juncker's appointment as President of the European Commission, Bill Jones (Adjunct Professor, History and Politics) looks at what this means for the Tory party.

David Cameron's returned from the EU summit in Brussels to a mostly good press from the Tory right. He had cast himself in Churchillian mode: the lone voice standing on principle, who had dared to challenge the collective power of the EU to appoint the wrong person as its most important official: President of the Commission.

Naturally this pleased the euro-sceptic right wing of his party. His ministers spoke up for his failed attempt: 'He did us proud' said Grant Schapps, party chairman. Jeremy Hunt condemned the cowardice of other EU countries who agreed with Cameron but had eventually voted with those who clung to Angela Merkel's side of the argument.

On 30th June Cameron's report to the House was greeted with ecstatic encomia from Sir Peter Tapsell and a gaggle of others including Euro-monomaniac, Bill Cash. Stewart Wood asserted, bizarrely, that 'I always knew he had lead in his pencil'.

A disinterested observer of these tribal arguments might wonder if being outvoted 26-2 represents anything to celebrate. Certainly there is a case for saying Jean Claude Juncker is not the right person for the job. His heavy drinking aside - can he really have cognac for breakfast as the Mail claims? - his well known commitment to the 'ever closer union' clause in the Treaty of Rome does not sit in any way easily with the recent Euro elections in which parties offering various degrees of criticism and disillusion with the organisation did sensationally well. Given the need for the EU finally to recognise it has to stop taking about reform and begin to implement it; Juncker does not seem to be the man to contribute anything to such a process.

Cameron was justified in feeling miffed - though of course when banner waving his allegedly brave stand, he did not mention this - that several leading EU heads including Angela Merkel, had earlier given every indication of agreeing with him.  Otherwise he would not have risked the explicit vote which he hoped would reveal the true extent of his support.

However her support prompted press dissent in Germany and she decided saving Cameron's skin was not worth the cost. The fact that his other supporters finally all fell in behind Angela left the British PM exposed and to a degree, humiliated. As Ben Bradshaw noted in the above debate, 'You've got all the wrong people applauding you.' Outside the House this included the delighted Nigel Farage and his ever growing following.

Bradshaw might have added '...and for the wrong reasons'. Euro-sceptics on the back benches are cock-a-hoop not because Cameron has come back with a 'Dunkirk' of a defeat - if only - but because they now perceive the collapse his plan to keep Britain in the EU, through renegotiating our terms of entry and repatriating a raft of powers leased to Brussels. They see the episode as derailing any attempt to renegotiate: if one of the EU's big three cannot veto the appointment of an official, albeit an important one, then how can this ersatz Churchill, single-handedly rewrite the terms of the Treaty of Rome?

Critics also point out that Cameron's political strategy was fatally flawed from the outset. His sop to his sceptics in 2005, withdrawing Tory MEPs from the European People's party (EPP) grouping, proved disastrous down the line as this group- triumphant in the recent elections- now has the right effectively to choose the Commission's leader.

Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer observes that this exclusion not only prevented UK Tories from pre-empting the Juncker nomination from within but also making the crucial contacts and alliances required in the EU to engineer decisions favourable to any national interest. The articulate Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, put it crudely but vividly:

'He f***** up. His whole strategy of feeding scraps just to satisfy them[his Euro-sceptics] is turning against him.'

European heads have become finally irritated by Cameron's genuflections to his troublesome right wing and have decided to let him swing in the wind. As Ed Miliband observed in Monday's debate, at the beginning of the negotiations he had the support of Merkel and a clutch of the other leaders in opposing Juncker, but by the end he was isolated, having alienated the rest of Europe.

In attempting to set up his referendum strategy he has signally failed and left with a toxic topic trailing after him right up until May next year. He has indeed done the Euro-phobes proud but in the process created possibly insuperable problems for himself in the future.




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