David Cameron’s behaviour at the European Council meeting in Belgium was remarkably bizarre from the perspective of the vast majority of member states. The Don Quixote of Downing street (the UK Prime Minister’s official residence) tilted at windmills as the business at the summit went on around him, writes Tim McNamara.
Even though it had become remarkably clear that he could not block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European commission, he still expended immense political capital and goodwill in opposing his nomination until the very end. Playing to the gallery in the UK, he seems to believe that being in a minority of one in the EU is actually a position of strength. This may wash with the Euro-sceptic MPs in his party but it betrays a gross misunderstanding of the bigger picture.
One of the more implicit outcomes of the leader’s summit is that Juncker has already been emasculated by the Council. Rather than him becoming the grim reaper of anti-integrationists he will probably become more of a functionary than Jacques Santer ever was. The unenthusiastic and reluctant reaction to his nomination, already serves to undermine his authority as commission president. Cameron may portray him as an ‘arch-federalist’ but Juncker is no Jacques Delors.
Although the European parliament leaders may claim that they have exerted their new found authority in choosing Juncker as the next president of the commission, the Council have completely stolen their thunder. The ‘dammed by faint praise’ aspect of his elevation clearly signals that his role as commission president will be subservient to the European council.
Cameron has often been perceived as a good tactician but he is also seen, by some, as a fool when it comes to strategy. The outcome of the European Council seems to underpin the latter whilst only partially succeeding (in the eyes of a domestic audience) in enhancing his reputation as the former. Even cheerleaders in the largely Euro-sceptic UK print media have lately questioned the wisdom of standing alone.
There may be claims of Cameron playing the long game but he had badly misjudged the amount of support he could corral in opposing Juncker. By being so implacable in his unnecessarily early opposition he has displayed a diplomatic naivety that is symptomatic of continually failing to fully understand the political undercurrents that surround these summits.
This litany of strategic errors at the highest levels of the EU has its roots in his early decision to take his party out of the main centre-right bloc in the EU, the European People’s party (EPP). If he had been ensconced with his natural political bedfellows, soundings through back channels could have easily been taken and a subtler diplomatic path plotted.
Being outside of the EPP, he misses many opportunities to have face-to-face meetings with many government leaders in more informal settings. This barrier to establishing deeper personal relationships with other centre-right leaders only serves to limit the amount of political intelligence available to him.
Instead, he has allowed the Euro-sceptic tail to wag the party dog. In order to block a late surge from right-wing rival for his party’s leadership in 2006, he curried favour with the Euro-sceptics in his party by pledging to leave the EPP. That decision continues to haunt him. It was compounded by setting up a rival party group to the EPP in the form of the European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR).
The most perverse thing about Juncker’s elevation is that Cameron may have been able to block his nomination if his conservatives had remained within the EPP. He probably wouldn’t have wanted Juncker’s rival for the EPP nomination, the then French commissioner Michel Barnier either. However, with the use of a little political skill, an acceptable rival candidate could have been backed so as to scupper both Juncker and Barnier. If Cameron had taken a hardline approach in private with (what would have been) EPP colleagues, he may well have been indulged.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.