Britain’s place in Europe


If, as David Cameron says, the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission has made it harder to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union, the British prime minister must bear much of the blame himself. By refusing to negotiate over the nomination and forcing a vote he was sure to lose, Cameron needlessly raised the stakes in a dispute that could otherwise have been resolved in a conventional, if unedifying, exercise in Brussels dealmaking.

The British argument was not enhanced by the shifting basis for Cameron’s objection to Juncker. At first it was because the former Luxembourg prime minister was a throwback to an old-fashioned European federalism. Later it was all about the “power grab” by the European Parliament represented by the expectation that the Spitzenkandidaten – or leading candidates – of the big EU political blocs should have first claim on the job. By last Friday, we were back at square one, with Cameron insisting that the other EU leaders – all except himself and Hungary’s Viktor Orban – had made a big mistake by choosing in Juncker “the career insider in Brussels”.

Other EU leaders shared Cameron’s misgivings about Juncker – and about setting a precedent that appeared to allow the European Parliament to choose the Commission President, a significant shift in the balance between the EU institutions. But public opinion and political calculation, combined with Cameron’s clumsiness, drove one potential ally after another out of his corner. At the end of the summit, the leaders struck an emollient tone, promising to address Britain’s concerns about future development of the EU. They noted “the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.”

This sums up the challenge facing the European Commission, the European Council of EU leaders and an increasingly powerful European Parliament as it seeks to reform the Union to allow for greater differentiation within it. As the euro zone becomes more economically and politically integrated, its relationship with Britain and a diminishing number of other member states that wish to remain outside it must be redefined in such a way that countries that prefer not to integrate further can participate as fully as possible in the EU without thwarting the ambitions of those who do.

If the rest of the EU wants Britain to remain inside, it must show flexibility and take account of the political reality in which Cameron operates. But the British prime minister must also take responsibility by making the case domestically for EU membership and avoiding unnecessary confrontations like last week’s, which can only weaken his hand.