Had six months to prepare, but came to the table without a game-plan. Reached out to Sweden and the Netherlands, and alienated swing-state Italy. Concentrated far, far too heavily on Germany. Failed to play the European Socialists off against the Christian Democrats. Failed to put pressure on MEPs to see if they would really endorse a man with that record. Took a hard line when the battle was lost but concessions might still have been won.
The UK has clearly made a poor start to its campaign to reform the EU, straining relations with the Parliament, Commission and Berlin all for the relatively symbolic matter of the Commission presidency. Indeed the government’s efforts have become almost impossible to defend (the best the Brits can manage is “it’s not fair” – and that from a country which built a proud reputation on dishonest and perfidious diplomacy). But in the spirit of fairplay, ok, here’s a go.
First, a justification (of sorts) for London’s approach so far.
The British government had been pushing for a wholesale reform of the EU treaties ahead of a possible in/out referendum in 2017. Other governments have proved resistant however, worrying about the trend towards renationalisation, the upheaval and the inevitable round of referendums. As a result, London was forced to scale back its ambitions massively (in a nutshell: give us less free movement, more free trade) meaning that it now needs to win its voters over with some symbolic victories (hence the attempted Junckercide).
Since Germany is thought to be in favour of major treaty change but is holding off as a concession to France, London probably felt owed a favour. As for the Netherlands and Sweden, they are known to be worried about the UK’s marginalisation, and so London felt it had friends there too. Again though, it may be the symbolism that was most important to London. The British government wanted to show voters the existence of a reformist northern alliance.
Second, an explanation of how the failure to get rid of Juncker (if this does end in failure) might be a blessing in disguise for London.
It may seem unlikely now but, when the dust settles, the European Parliament may just turn out to be the UK’s main ally when it comes to pushing for treaty change. The Parliament doesn’t really fear the process and potentially has much to gain. With the UK having raised questions about its democratic credentials, moreover, Parliament may now make a point of demanding the high-profile reform path and resisting efforts at low-key ‘grey’ treaty tinkering. Cameron, currently so irritated by the Parliament’s “political autism”, may yet be saved by it.
Compare this to the scenario where the UK actually succeeds in blocking Juncker. History shows that weak status-quo candidates like Juncker are usually replaced under time pressure by even weaker status-quo candidates (Santer). And on the rare occasions when strong candidates do sneak in, they are normally more interested in their legacy than in rewarding the governments that sponsored them (Delors). In either case, they have tended to centralise power around themselves rather than defer to clusters of reformist Commissioners.
Third, a word about how all this might actually strengthen the EU.
Governments badly need treaty change if they are to make the EU workable, but they hate the idea of carrying it out. They have therefore got used to scaling down their ambitions and have tried to find back-door paths to reform. This has damaged the functioning of the EU and all but buried its democratic credentials. And it has profited Eurosceptics by shifting public attention towards constitutional issues and away from practical efforts to stop Europe’s decline.
The UK was increasingly part of this questionable trend, concentrating on cosmetic changes to disguise the EU’s lack of real development. But with the symbolic option of nominating a reform-minded Commission President now seemingly closed off, the UK is being forced back onto the straight and narrow path. With that, the momentum may fall to a club of countries, including Germany, which are not afraid of the reform-and-referendum path.
Would the UK deserve this kind of reprieve? Probably not. Would it even be a reprieve? Hard to say. But the real issue here is whether the UK will make the most of any opportunities that do fall into its lap. Instead of complaining about a lack of fairness, or stressing that they are in fact prepared to play the “Brussels game” by reducing their reform ambitions, the Brits should look for constructive means to promote their agenda.