James Davis works in financial technology in London. He runs a Conservative political blog at www.clear-blue-skies.com
Jean-Claude Juncker looks set to become the next president of the European Commission. This is unfortunate, as he in no way is an ideal candidate for the job. There are two main problems with him.
The first is that he feels entitled to the job, and so hopes to set a precedent that the largest coalition in the Union, no matter how small its minority, should automatically be given the presidency. This would be a dire precedent, since it would allow voters’ wills to be by-passed. (Previously, the presidency was decided by the heads of state alone).
The second is that he is a European federalist, who would be undertaking the presidency at a time when the populations of Europe have sent the clearest-ever signal that increased federalisation is not what they want. To choose a candidate who goes against the flow of popular opinion, at this time, would further undermine what little public confidence the EU has across Europe.
Cameron’s strategic problem
David Cameron is, consequently, right in principle to fight the candidacy of Juncker. Unfortunately, however, and in spite of early signs that he might have succeeded in negotiating to avoid this scenario, it looks very likely that uncker will be the president.
Consequently, as Boris Johnson recently pointed out, the Prime Minister has expended a substantial amount of precious, and scarce, European political capital in fighting the inevitable. Mr Juncker is a very poor choice for President, Cameron should know when the fight is lost, however unpalatable it is to admit defeat.
There are plenty of ways in which opposition to Mr Juncker could be traded away in favour of increased British influence – for example, in relation to other European Commission positions. By focusing his attention so strictly on the presidency, Cameron is failing to secure the best deal possible for British interests.
But there is still time to correct this, and I suspect he will start to shift his focus in this direction quite soon. The Prime Minister has finally started to approach Europe more skilfully, after a very poor initial performance. Key mistakes include his early decision to leave the European People’s Party (EPP), in order to satisfy the voracious and insatiable Tory Eurosceptics (despite pleas from Angela Merkel to remain) in favour of a more marginal group with far less influence, and his more recent inability to convince this group to refuse entry to the Alternative für Deutschland (thus alienating Merkel even further).
While this may have given Cameron a little political space back home, where he has constantly been under far more pressure from his own side than the opposition with regards Europe, it has ultimately cost the Conservatives the chance to be as effective in Europe as they have in their governmental responsibilities.
Merkel is an uncommon European
Thankfully, David Cameron is starting to show a more skill at dealing with Europe, and has started tentatively to repair his relationship with Merkel who, under happier circumstances, would be far happier to work with the British Conservatives than either French party, and would support many of the economic, if not political, reforms that the Conservatives want.
To have a centre-right German Chancellor so closely aligned with our own interests and politics has not happened before Merkel, and it is unlikely to happen again. She is not only interested in and capable of delivering reform, but also willing to work closely with us to deliver reform, if only we would stop being so anti-European that we could actually engage in it.
Very simply, we are wasting a golden opportunity to deliver the sort of reforms we’ve dreamed of since the European federalists seemed to take control of the whole operation.
Tory Eurosceptics are harming their own cause
Cameron appears to recognise this. Unfortunately, the Eurosceptics in his party do not. They are so intent on fighting everything European that they refuse to give him the support he needs in fighting to deliver a Union that might appeal to the British public and to the Conservatives. Surely one can argue for a referendum without declining to engage with Europe in the meantime.
The Eurosceptics feed a popular, and by no means incorrect, perception that Europe is built to oppose freedom and democracy in our country, that it leads to an ever-increasing loss of national sovereignty, and that it will eventually culminate in a European super-state. And yet by their continued failure to engage with it, they actually make that outcome more likely.
Now is the time for more reasonable Eurosceptics to push Europe in a new direction. But instead of leading that push with the Germans, the Conservative Party is forcing Cameron to sit on the side-lines complaining like a petulant child about matters which, in reality, he is unable to change. (It is worth pointing out that if the Conservatives were still in the EPP, it is likely that Cameron could have blocked Juncker then and there, since he is the EPP’s candidate).
Most importantly, both the Eurosceptics and the Europhiles within the Conservative party, and within all major political parties, share most of the same achievable aims in the short term, and would be far more effective working together than fighting each other. It’s time for the Conservatives to start thinking strategically, and rally behind Cameron on Europe, rather than continue to harm their own cause in the run-up to the next election.