June 27, 2014
The humiliating defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron in the election for the European Union’s top bureaucrat is probably the best thing that could have happened to him.
Cameron took a calculated risk in the fallout from May’s elections for members of the European Parliament, in which right wing anti-EU parties including the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made unprecedented gains.
The results made Cameron’s credibility look threadbare, especially his pledge to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. Cameron wants to grab back powers over national policy-making and legislation that have been handed over to Brussels. His plan is to put the results to a clear yes or no referendum in Britain in 2017, after the next general election, due in May next year.
But recent local and European elections in Britain show that a gathering tide of voters, both Conservatives and supporters of the opposition New Labour party, are so fed up with the intrusive nannyism of Brussels they are prepared to opt for UKIP and its populist leader Nigel Farage.
For any of his plans to stay on the drawing board, Cameron needs to win next year’s election, preferably with a majority. To have any hope of doing that without continuing his current uncomfortable alliance with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron needed to burnish his anti-Brussels credentials and marginalize UKIP.
He chose to fight tooth and nail to prevent the election of former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission, the chief administrator of the EU’s daily business. Cameron was unstinting in his criticism of Juncker, who he lambasted as the ultimate Brussels insider, dedicated to filching the powers of member governments, and a barrier to internal reform.
From the beginning Cameron’s campaign was a piece of sound and fury signifying not much. There was never any chance that the British Prime Minister would be able to boost a candidate who could defeat Juncker, the chosen EU supremo of the European People’s Party, the largest group in the European Parliament.
When it came to a vote among the EU’s government leaders today, only Hungary supported Cameron. Given that there are grave suspicions whether the anti-democratic tendencies of the current regime in Budapest continue to qualify it for EU membership, Cameron’s defeat was conclusive.
Except at home. British Prime Ministers seldom suffer by standing up to what voters see as the crafty wiles of untrustworthy Europeans, and Cameron’s lone stand will likely be viewed as heroic by enough people to give him an electoral bounce.
The question is whether this will be a dead cat bounce. By his loud and blustery opposition to the choice of his fellow EU government leaders, has Cameron poisoned the water for his objective of negotiating a new and less entangled relationship between London and Brussels?
Has his performance in the last few weeks so irritated the other EU potentates that they will obstruct or simply ignore his campaign for reform?
Probably not. Juncker will doubtless be confirmed as the President of the EU Commission by the European Parliament, but this is a functionary’s job. He will be important as the manager of the day-to-day business of the EU, but the government leaders of the member states are careful to keep authority over the big issues in their own hands. That is of particular significance because the European Parliament is getting uppity and trying to grab decision-making powers the government leaders are determined to keep themselves.
And the relationship between Britain and the EU is a big issue on which the future of the group could depend.
Britain is already outside the common currency Eurozone and has not joined some of the treaty commitments to common government that have been accepted by other members. Cameron’s objective of even further loosening the ties between London and Brussels has implications for the entire EU project, not least because there are several other countries also chaffing at the dictates of the central bureaucracy and eager for relief.
The EU is already a two-track association. Only 18 of the 28 EU members are in the Eurozone and use the euro as their common currency. There is no consensus on such future projects as handing Brussels the power to evolve and manage such things as common foreign or defence policies. Britain’s desire to renegotiate its terms of EU membership will provide a context in which to debate some of these key issues about the group’s direction.
After Cameron’s defeat on the Juncker vote today, UKIP leader Farage scornfully described the outcome as “game, set and match to Brussels,” which was just what Cameron wanted.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
Revolt against Brussels rattles European leaders by Jonathan Manthorpe on Facts and Opinions, May 2014
Scottish leader downplays difficulties of independence by Jonathan Manthorpe on Facts and Opinions, April 2014
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