This week, the European Parliament will vote on Jean-Claude Juncker’s EU Commission.
It’s been a fraught few months debating the line up for the new edition of the Brussels establishment. At the very outset of the process, David Cameron very publically opposed Juncker’s nomination as President.
That battle was lost, but the Prime Minister’s position that Juncker was unacceptable proved both clear and popular.
After all that effort, it’s odd to learn that Downing Street is now applying pressure to get Conservative MEPs to vote in favour of the Juncker Commission, a group who mirror the Luxembourger’s eurofederalism (among other sins).
The message from the Prime Minister is that a) Juncker has extended an “olive branch” to London by giving Lord Hill the financial services brief, therefore b) a vote in support of Juncker’s platform would be due reciprocation, and would improve the chance of success in the long-promised renegotiation.
There are a number of obvious problems with the argument:
- First, it is starkly inconsistent with the previous position. Juncker’s beliefs were deemed unacceptable to Britain and the Prime Minister a few months ago. Those beliefs haven’t changed – indeed they are reinforced by his team – so he ought to remain unacceptable.
- Second, the new Commission’s acceptance of Lord Hill is not exactly a huge sacrifice for the integrationist cause. In his confirmation hearings he made clear that he will be Brussels’ man, not Britain’s – and just to be safe, he won’t be given control of the bonus cap currently being opposed by the City and George Osborne. If that’s an “olive branch”, it’s quite a sparse one.
- Third, the Commission will be approved by a majority of the parliament regardless of how our MEPs vote – the socialist, liberal and EPP groups will vote for the establishment as usual. Juncker’s stance on renegotiation (be it pro- or anti-, depending on who you believe) is hardly going to change based on this vote, particularly given that Cameron viscerally opposed his candidacy in the first place.
- Fourth, this is a question of trust. The ECR, the Tories’ group in the European Parliament, has a real opportunity to be that institution’s first proper opposition. Indeed, our party essentially fought the European election on that basis – as did our allies across the EU, with some notable success. This vote is an opportunity to live out that approach, rather than simply talk about it. At a time when the contrast or correlation between rhetoric and action is a major issue (see the latest bout of the immigration debate for reference), supporting Juncker even in a token vote will only play into our critics’ hands.
Downing Street’s position appears to be woefully clear – vote for the Commission, get Hill into the job – but it is causing a degree of chaos among Conservative MEPs.
The message was passed on to them by Syed Kamall, the leader of the Tory delegation. He has a difficult task, particularly given he is relatively new to the position of leader – the Prime Minister is urging him to whip his MEPs to vote for Juncker, while various (but not all) of those MEPs are deeply uncomfortable about or downright opposed to doing so.
This mess is the product of a mistaken call by Downing Street – and it isn’t the first when it comes to whipping MEPs. When the German AfD wanted to join the group, the instruction came to vote against them in order to keep Merkel sweet on – you guessed it – renegotiation. Not only was it the wrong decision, but several Tory MEPs disobeyed the order, the AfD were admitted anyway by a majority vote of the ECR and Merkel’s (not very helpful) stance remains unchanged. Conservative MEPs were put at odds with each other and with their allies, all over a policy which neither changed the outcome of the vote nor improved the slim chance of a renegotiation succeeding. It was pain for no gain.
The parallels are clear, and if anything this new error is worse - the Prime Minister risks making rebels of people who simply want to follow the policy he himself charted mere months ago, and he can secure no benefit by doing so.
There is yet some hope. The final decision as to how the Conservative whip will instruct MEPs to vote has not yet been made – it will be finalised on Tuesday, and the vote itself takes place on Wednesday.
I don’t envy Syed’s dilemma, particularly as this is not a situation of his own making. Those who did create it are safely distant from having to implement it or live with its consequences.
But a decision must be made. It was right to oppose Juncker earlier this year – and it would be wrong to vote for him now. I hope Conservative MEPs will do the right thing this week.