"...the wish for improved relations with France was primarily but a fresh manifestation of the general tendency of British Governments to take advantage of every opportunity to approach more closely to the ideal condition of living in honourable peace with all other States." (The Eyre Crowe Memorandum, 1907)

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Juncker affair

There has been much good comment on the ongoing affaire Juncker, notably this from Gideon Rachman and this from Philip Stephens at the FT.  Standing on the shoulders of those giants, but drawing on my own experience in similar processes in the past, here is my tuppennyworth on the situation with a week to go.  

The strategy

It was, and is, the right thing to try to get someone other than Juncker.   He’s a corporatist, unsympathetic to flexibility and subsidiarity, and doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for the UK’s thinking.  That’s not what the EU needs just now.

The institutional power-grab involved in a Juncker nomination is also worth fighting.  Hitherto there's been a presumption that the individuals appointed to the top EU jobs had to be broadly acceptable to all Member States.  The veto was the ultimate guarantee of this.  It is, unfortunately, clear that the Treaty drafters did intend to change that previous system, but equally clear that they didn’t intend to go this far.  We are now moving to a system where not only (unfortunately) is there majority voting in the European Council, but where the Parliament has the initiative.  That is much more like the normal EU law-making process, which Britain has rightly resisted in areas of fundamental importance, and totally inappropriate for major institutional issues.

The tactics

The British diplomatic tactics have been much criticised.  I'm not sure why.  Few European leaders seemed to have genuinely bought into the Spitzenkandidaten concept before the European Parliament elections.  Thereafter, a blocking minority of UK, Germany, and miscellaneous Nordics and Central Europeans looked feasible and Merkel seemed to be at least potentially on board.  When she switched under domestic pressure, the British had lost vital days in rallying others and in making clear the principled nature of their objections.  By that point, Britain was always going to be up against it.   

The critics seem to be arguing that Cameron shouldn't have gone in so hard against Juncker, even if he was a poor candidate, because he can't now back down gracefully in the face of a majority in his favour.  I don't buy this.  Equivocation on our part would have been read by others as meaning "the Brits will buy it in the end" and made it still harder for us to win our case. On issues that matter in the EU, you are always best stating your case forcibly, politely, but clearly.  

What now?

Today's meeting of Socialist EU leaders came out for Juncker.  This looks to spike the last, faint, hope that Britain might be able to construct a blocking minority involving the Italians.  As of now, it looks as if only Hungary might vote no.  It’s not yet totally impossible that some of our friends like the Dutch or Swedes might argue next week that it’s not sensible to isolate the Brits and that further delay is needed, but it’s a waning hope and they might not succeed anyway.

The No.10 and FCO teams will have been working the phones hard for weeks now.  They'll need to keep doing so, but the purpose of the calls will subtly shift.  Rather than trying to rally support, I imagine they will be trying to signal three things, ie that:

(i) the UK will, if it comes to it, be voted down rather than join a consensus;

(ii) we won't escalate further, we will work professionally with Juncker, but no-one should expect us to go out of our way to make his life easy in future;

(iii) we expect the candidate for European Council President (who will, in fact, be at least equally influential in any renegotiation process) to be acceptable to the UK.

What does this mean for Britain in the EU and our relationship with Germany?

It makes no difference to our position in the EU.  We have taken unpopular isolated positions in the past and more often than not been vindicated.  In fact, where we’ve run into problems it’s when we’ve backed down after taking a stand (eg the Ioannina compromise on majority voting or the “beef war” in the mid-90s).  In short, this will not in itself change any other Member State’s perception of us or make any renegotiation more difficult.

Still, some irritation may remain for a bit.  Just in case, I would have thought Britain absolutely must put forward a Commissioner candidate of sufficient standing and authority to make it very difficult for the Parliament to target him (or her) or for Juncker to avoid giving them a serious job.  I am not sure any of the current names in the frame quite meet that test. 

As for UK / Germany, clearly there will be a bit of bumpiness in the short run.  How serious and how long it lasts depends on whether either Cameron or Merkel think they were genuinely misled by the other in any of their discussions. 

Finally, some argue this makes delivering German support for a renegotiation more difficult.  I doubt it (it will be water under the bridge by then) but anyway in my view it’s a mistaken strategy anyway to rely on Merkel and Germany delivering what we want.  In the EU you win arguments by setting out your case early, repeating it continually, and shifting the climate of opinion.  Power politics counts in the end, but you have to change the view of what’s “normal” and “reasonable” first.  Britain has only just started to do that.  I will return to that point in future posts. 

No comments:

Post a Comment