Things have not been going well for David Cameron of late. He’s been leading the charge (if you can truly be said to be leading when very few are following) against Jean-Claude Junker’s candidacy for the presidency of the European Commission, the EU bureaucracy’s top job. I’ve argued before that Juncker (a former prime minister of mighty Luxembourg) would in many respects be an ideal candidate. He’s a mediocrity with an infinite capacity to annoy, a paleofederalist and an Anglophobe to boot. Put him in charge and Brexit (the UK’s exit from the EU) becomes quite a bit more likely. At the same time, there is (as Cameron has rightly pointed out) an important constitutional argument against his candidacy. Juncker is claiming that the job is his by right (he headed the list for the family of parties that came top in the recent elections to the EU parliament) when it is anything but. The EU Council (which is made up of the prime ministers of the different member states) has, under the EU treaty, that responsibility, and at least some claim to democratic legitimacy, which is more than can be said for the EU’s Parliament.
For various reasons, Cameron’s campaign against Juncker has been faltering, but the events of the last week or so may still serve one useful purpose: they are a forceful demonstration to voters that Number 10’s strategy of supposedly renegotiating a better deal for Britain within a meaningfully reformed EU is based on a mixture of deception, wishful thinking and utter implausibility. To take one instance, one key ‘reformer’ Mrs. Merkel (no fan of Juncker) has essentially been forced to throw her support behind the man from Luxembourg for reasons too complicated (and murky) to dwell on here.
And then there are the Poles, supposedly another nation rallying behind reform. That was never remotely credible, as a set of leaked recordings of discussions within Poland’s political leadership makes all too clear (English-language extracts here. Warning: some profanity). The Polish government has now said it will support Juncker, as have other allegedly reformist governments in Sweden and Holland. Cameron’s only supporter may end up being Hungary’s Orban, another pariah.
Meanwhile, sources close to Cameron are saying that the British prime minister has refused to rule out campaigning for UK to leave the EU if European leaders support Juncker. That’s a bluff (and it is a bluff) that may well be called.
That all of this is going to be discussed tomorrow in Ieper (Ypres, or, for the historically minded, Wipers) is an ironic, poignant and all too painful reminder to Britain of a previous ill-conceived (and infinitely more tragic) continental entanglement.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Iain Martin frets:
[Juncker’s] appointment, if it happens, will be a historical disaster on a grand scale which makes Britain’s exit from the European Union very likely. And I speak as someone who has been for reform and staying in the EU if possible.
In handing Juncker the key job and the Brussels machinery, the federalists are not only effectively taking reform off the table and signalling the end of the EU as a club of distinct nation states. In being so dismissive, they are poisoning future relations which will make it more difficult to come to an accommodation in the event of British withdrawal. As a result, in London the reformers who have argued that change is coming by 2017 are in a state of shock. You’ll also notice how quiet the pro-EU lobby is here. Both groups know Juncker’s appointment is a calamity for the cause of reform and British membership.
The reality is that reform has never been a realistic possibility. Many of us have clung to the delusion that something might be doable for far longer than we should have done given the EU’s legal and institutional mechanisms (for me, the last straw was the Lisbon Treaty) before finally giving up on Brussels. Mr. Martin, a very shrewd journalist, may be about to reach the same point.
Martin links to an article in the (heavily Europhile) Financial Times that includes this entertaining detail (an old story actually) about Juncker:
Mr Juncker’s successor in the eurogroup job, Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has also publicly said the Luxembourger drank heavily during eurogroup meetings, something echoed by several others concerned about Mr Juncker’s ability to manage the commission. Although none of the officials who spoke to the Financial Times about Mr Juncker’s drinking believed it affected his judgment, they said it compounded concerns about his management abilities, noting that it appeared to contribute to the disorganisation of late-night sessions. Mr Juncker’s aides declined to comment on the allegations, but in the past he has said he does not have a problem with alcohol.
On the other hand:
For all the criticism, Mr Juncker is widely credited with playing a key role in the creation of the EU’s single currency in the early 1990s…
Say what you will about Nero, he knows how to light a good fire.
Back to Martin:
Juncker would be really quite rubbish at the job. An exhausted veteran of the squalid deals which established the disastrous single currency in the 1990s, there is nothing in his record to suggest that he would even be good at the basics of administration. What he seems to be about is contempt for Eurosceptic opposition, a disregard for democracy, a resistance to reform and a relentless federalist vision of the EU which cannot accommodate a recalibrated relationship for countries such as Britain. According to opinion polls, the British want to trade, be friends and cooperate with the EU, but not immerse themselves in a country called Europe. Despite knowing this, the EU’s governments are giving the British voters the finger.
And still, most of Europe accelerates madly towards disaster as though they do not care, either ignoring British concerns on Juncker’s unsuitability, or being rude about one of the EU’s largest contributors (us) and talking now as though they want us to leave.
The bottom line is this. If Juncker gets the gig, this is the week that the door was opened to Britain’s exit from the EU.