Cameron’s strategy in opposing Juncker has pushed UK further from EU core
Analysis: had Downing Street sought support from others in EU it might not be so alone
British prime minister David Cameron (left) is welcomed by European Council president Herman van Rompuy prior to a ceremony marking the centenary of the outbreak of the first World War, in Ypres, Belgium, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Olivier Hoslet
Leaving lands that were once battlefields in Ypres last night, David Cameron could have well have mused on Rudyard Kipling’s words about treating triumph and disaster just the same.
Today, he faces overwhelming defeat at the European Council. Rarely, however, has a British prime minister done so with such support from Conservative backbenchers and the right-wing British press. Indeed, the clamour is so loud that Cameron could be forgiven for believing that a. he has followed a sensible strategy over the last few weeks and b. that it has worked.
No 10 Downing Street, whatever it may say now, had not planned that the UK would be alone at tonight’s formal summit meeting. Instead, it believed that a coalition existed to stop Jean-Claude Juncker. Just a few months ago, some Conservatives argued that a so-called “northern alliance” – the Germans, the British, the Swedes, the Dutch – would bring rigour to the European Union.
Faced with the European Parliament election results – the poor turnout, the support for anti-EU parties – the alliance would scupper federalist tendencies, some in London believed. Much of the chatter in London over recent months about the existence of the alliance was fantasy-land politics, where people convinced themselves of its existence and then found evidence to prove it.
Most of the individual parts of the analysis were, and are accurate: the Germans want the British to stay in; the Dutch are frustrated by heavy-handed Brussels interventions; and the Swedes want more reform.
However, each time London has inaccurately understood agreement on views to equal agreements about action.
In the Juncker case, it moved too far, too fast. Instead, of trying to encourage other EU capitals to make negative noises first about Juncker, it took the front-of-house role itself, only to feel let down when Angela Merkel shied away. If stopping Juncker had worked, then Cameron would have been able to claim a major victory and trumpet his ability to forge coalitions that delivered for the British interest at the EU table.
If not, the second leg of the Cameron plan would focus on the domestic: he had faced up “to the Europeans” and defended the flag until the end. It would convince doubtful British voters and his own MPs that he really will negotiate hard to win changes to the UK’s membership terms of the EU.
Cameron faces doubts on a number of scores: some still do not believe that he will hold an EU membership referendum in 2017, though that number is declining. More importantly, however, a greater number believe that he will be unable to win meaningful concessions and will, instead, try to dress up an inadequate deal to convince voters to stay in.
Standing alone in Brussels tonight, according to this analysis, will finally convince his doubtful colleagues around the council table that a Cameron threat is no idle thing. Being outvoted in such circumstance, they argue, is no defeat. Cameron and some of those closest to him privately point to what happened in December 2011.
Then, he blocked an EU treaty governing taxation and spending in the euro zone, arguing that he had not given sufficient guarantees that the City of London would not be subjected to attack. Europhiles reacted with disdain that he had not been European.
For Cameron, the most important message he drew is that his domestic opinion polls ratings soared. However, the danger for Cameron and the UK is that others will draw a different lesson: that there is nothing that will satisfy them. If so, the UK edges just that little bit closer to the exit door.