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Editor’s blog: Juncker definitely has it in for Cameron

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is an irascible man who when pushed will sometimes tell you what he is actually thinking – an usual trait for a politician, and one which should liven up coverage of the Brussels law-making machine over the next few years, writes Justin Stares.

This quality – honesty cannot be faulted – was on show in the final three seconds of an otherwise boring interview Mr Juncker gave to the BBC late last month. Asked by the British interviewer to give the Commission position on UK demands for restrictions on the EU freedom of movement of people, the Luxemburger at first trots out the well rehearsed line: the EU treaty guarantees this basic freedom, and it cannot be altered unilaterally by David Cameron.

The journalist persists with his line of questioning, no doubt in search of something a little tastier for his viewers, and Juncker’s body language starts to show frustration. Finally, right at the end of the exchange, he can contain himself no longer. He blurts out: “I took Jonathan Hill into my Commission and the ECR was abstaining. Is that British coherence?”

While totally unintelligible to 99% of the BBC audience because of the “ECR” reference, this overlooked comment gives a good deal of insight into the thinking of the man who took on Europe’s top job on November 3. Few people, even journalists in Britain, will know that the European Conservative and Reformists group  in the European Parliament (the third largest) is led by Britain’s Conservatives. Juncker is clearly annoyed they refused to back him after his perceived generosity towards Jonathan Hill, the British Commissioner with responsibility for some financial affairs – and despite the fact that the ECR votes didn’t matter because he already had a comfortable majority.

From these two sentences we can tell that Juncker is what the French call rancunier: he bears a grudge. While he may have forgiven Cameron for trying to veto his appointment (do you remember that high-five between the two shortly after?) he clearly feels let down by the European Parliament vote, which he believes Cameron could have influenced. This might in reality be unfair to Cameron; not all Euro MPs are loyal to the party line; some in the group want out of the EU and would never support a federalist such as Juncker – whatever the boss told them.

The comment also reveals Juncker’s sense of self-importance. He believes he could have vetoed Hill’s appointment if he had wanted. This is questionable to say the least. No Commission president has ever vetoed a candidate put forward by a member state. Euro MPs have exercised this right, but not the Commission president. Perhaps Juncker believes he could have manipulated the Parliament into rejecting Hill? This is more likely.

Finally, Juncker believes the the position of the British Government is incoherent. In Juncker’s eyes, Cameron has been talking about wanting radical reform of the EU while refusing to play the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine game. This is not the way things work in Brussels, Cameron is being told.

This spells bad news for Cameron’s plans to wrestle significant competences back from Brussels. Juncker is telling Cameron he has broken their deal, and he can forget it.

The Brussels bureaucracy has already come to terms with the possibility of a UK exit, and Juncker is in no mood to help Cameron out.

With most other Member States still playing ball, Juncker probably believes the EU would survive with one less member, even if that member is a big one. It is however not a strategy without risk. In Hungary, politicians are already talking openly about a possible EU exit. In Italy, a majority of voters regret adopting the euro. The only danger for the Commission is that the precedent set by a UK withdrawal becomes a stampede. Without economic growth this is a real possibility, and on this score the Commission’s record over the last five years is poor.

You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinStares or on Tumblr here

 

 

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