It appears that the ongoing negotiations as to who will be the next European Commission president has caused a breakdown of trust between London and Berlin. The ramifications of which will resonate in several other capitals. It may also have an impact on which policy portfolio will be up for grabs from 2015 to late 2019, writes Tim McNamara.
Cameron’s trenchant public opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker being appointed Commission president is triggering reaction some capitals. The actions of his party in the European parliament are also only adding to the potential marginalisation of the UK.
Once the Lisbon treaty came into force, no member state has the power of veto over who will be appointed Commission president. If Cameron wants to block Juncker he needs the formal support of several leaders or even the tacit support of others, who would be able to persuade Juncker to quietly withdraw.
Up until recently, there were murmerings amongst several influential leaders as to the suitability of Juncker being appointed. France was openly cautious and Germany seemed to be very lukewarm in their support. Others such as Prime Ministers Orban from Hungary and Reinfeldt from Sweden were openly critical. it is believed that the Dutch PM Rutte privately, also had serious doubts.
Italy’s newly emboldened Socialist Prime Minister. Matteo Renzi also queries Juncker’s suitability. He is quoted, today (02/06/14) in the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung as being prepared to fall in behind Juncker if he fundamentally changed the EU’s economic policy. A highly unlikely outcome, with Juncker being a former head of the euro group of countries who devised an austerity-led approach to the financial crisis.
Cameron’s objections were, understandably from his point of view, based on a premise that Juncker (and the same caution applied to Martin Shulz also) was too much of an old ‘federalist’ hand to be able to deliver a significant reform agenda in the next two years. Cameron also believed that Juncker had an antipathetic view of the UK policy priorities in the context of EU prerogatives.
Cameron presumes that the appointment of Juncker unopposed would be very badly received by his party in the UK. It would open up the barely concealed running sore that is EU politics within the Conservative party. The continuing rise of UKIP has created a febrile atmosphere in the party over the EU following the European parliament elections.
Yet, like the negotiations over the EU’s response to the eurozone crisis, Cameron seems to be overplaying his hand. Last time he claimed he had vetoed a EU legal imperative to address the euro crisis only for the other 27 member states to simply bypass the UK’s objections and implement the policy anyway. This time his intervention has, it appears, again to have been too forceful and too unsubtle.
One of the main problems with the current UK strategy over the multilayered negotiations over who gets what post and what portfolio is the lack of joined-up thinking. Despite informed advice to the contrary, Cameron has firstly made it personal with Juncker. He has criticised him by openly questioning his suitability. Secondly, he has failed to give Juncker another option that would allow Juncker to withdraw.
Like a game of three dimensional chess, the inter-related talks about who gets what post/portfolio is a long game and Cameron’s blunt message about the first appointment to be discussed is unnecessarily risky and probably profoundly wrongheaded. Immediately after the European parliament elections, there were sufficient doubts about Juncker’s candidacy to allow space for a confidential discussion to take place between Cameron and other EU leaders.
The head of the socialist group in the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda, intimated very soon after the elections, that Juncker’s support in his own party group in EU politics was lukewarm at best. This was Cameron’s opportunity. If he had intervened constructively and suggested Juncker be nominated for Von Rompuy’s position as president of the European Council he could have achieved his goal and banked some political capital at the same time.
Sources from within Juncker’s political group, the European People’s party (EPP), acknowledge that because of the lack of enthusiasm about his candidacy after the election, Juncker was (and still is) interested in being President of the European Council instead of the Commission. This would have allowed for a diplomatic solution to what was perceived by Cameron and others at the time as the ‘Juncker problem’. Merkel’s intervention over the weekend may now well be decisive.
Instead, not only has Cameron’s initiative flushed out the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as a public supporter of Juncker but other initiatives by the Conservatives have alienated Merkel further.
The Conservative party’s group in the European parliament, the European conservatives and reformists (ECR), has been having secret negotiations with the German party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to join the ECR. These machinations are bitterly opposed by Merkel’s party in the Reichstag as they see the AfD as an existentialist threat in forthcoming German elections.
Cameron’s alienation of Merkel will undoubtedly make it harder to achieve the UK’s EU objectives over the coming months including obtaining a highly prized portfolio such as energy.
After the debacle over the supposed veto exercised by Cameron in late 2011, it appears that a wrongheaded negotiating strategy is again producing an outcome that the UK Prime Minister was, again, desperately trying to avoid.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.