Cameron's Empty Threat: Britain Risks Losing an Ally in EU Feud

By in London

Backed into a corner? British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he categorically rejects Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the European Commission. Zoom
AFP

Backed into a corner? British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he categorically rejects Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the European Commission.

It appears David Cameron's strategy has backfired. His campaign to derail Jean-Claude Juncker's appointment as the next EU Commission president is failing and the British prime minister may soon suffer a loss of face. Angela Merkel is his only possible savior.

In his 18 years as a participant at European Union summits, Jean-Claude Juncker has witnessed a battle or two. But never in his dreams would he become the focal point of a showdown between Germany and Britain.

On the one side in the battle over the former prime minister of Luxembourg stands a very broad coalition in Germany that includes politicians and media running the full spectrum, from left to right. This unusual alliance is demanding that the victor in the elections for European Parliament be appointed as the next president of the European Commission, the EU's powerful executive.

On the other side stands a no less determined British public, which considers a man who is the Brussels insider incarnate to be completely out of the question. The very idea that Juncker was elected by European voters is, to them, laughable.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is actively seeking supporters among the 28 leaders of the EU member states to block Juncker's appointment in the European Council. Last week, Cameron declared to fellow leaders that if Juncker, a federalist, is appointed Commission president, the chances would increase that the British people would vote to leave in a planned 2017 referendum on EU membership.

'Blackmail'

That is a common opinion in the United Kingdom, but it appears that Cameron has underestimated the effect his words would have. The threat could in fact ultimately cost him a decisive ally: Angela Merkel. For days now, furious politicians and the editorial pages of newspapers have called on Merkel to not put up with this "blackmail." Merkel feels forced to repeatedly ensure her support for Juncker, as she did again in parliament on Wednesday in an address in which she also reaffirmed her committment to Britain staying in the EU.

The German public's suddenly passionate enthusiasm for Juncker caught Cameron off guard. How, his strategists are asking, could the country Britain views as its most important partner when it comes to EU reforms, have fallen for this representative of the status quo?

The fact that even the tabloid Bild has thrown its impassioned support behind Juncker was a "real shock," said Mats Persson, the director of the Open Europe think tank. He says the debate in Germany has developed in ways that are very unfavorable to Cameron.

The British government emphasizes that the country isn't alone, noting that Sweden, Hungary and the Netherlands also want to prevent Juncker from becoming Commission president. But that wouldn't be enough to establish a blocking minority in the European Council. If a vote were to be held, the Juncker faction would likely win.

Merkel Wouldn't Risk Personal Defeat for Cameron

Merkel could tip the balance against Juncker, and in the immediate wake of the election, she seemed willing. But after the intense debate of recent days, ditching Juncker would now be seen as kowtowing to the Brits. As much as she would like to protect Cameron from a loss of face, she would probably not do so if it meant a personal defeat for her.

As such, it very much looks like Cameron has backed himself into a corner, left with no leverage to convince Merkel to change course. Tory members of the European Parliament have, to be sure, threatened to invite Germany's euro-skeptic AFD party to join their group in European Parliament should Merkel stick with Juncker. Cameron famously withdrew his party from the center-right European People's Party, of which Merkels Christian Democrats are members, five years ago to appease his Tories' EU-skeptic wing in a move that deeply angered the German chancellor.

But Cameron likely has little interest in magnifying the already significant differences between his party and Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. In the long term, he is dependent on Merkel's help should he move ahead with plans to renegotiate Britain's position in the EU.

Even the threat to leave the EU looks hollow upon further inspection. There is no doubt that installing Juncker as Commission president would be wind in the sails of EU opponents in the country. "Those who are in favor of leaving the EU are praying that Juncker will be named," Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Gideon Rachman, columnist for the Financial Times, wrote that the idea that the native of Luxembourg could become Commission president "evokes a strange, irrational rage in the British."

But that could also be said of Josť Manuel Barroso or Herman Van Rompuy. The probability that a new face in Brussels could even minimally influence British attitudes toward the EU is very low. Indeed, the majority likely doesn't care at all who becomes EU Commission president. It is hard to imagine the result of the referendum being influenced by this at all.

Some EU veterans believe Cameron's categorical opposition to Juncker to be a significant tactical error, with many saying that he misinterpreted the situation in Brussels. "If I were Mr. Cameron, I would go to Juncker and say: These are my conditions," says Richard Corbett, a Labour Party member who was just elected to the European Parliament and who previously was EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy's chief of staff. In his view, Juncker could adopt a reform mandate by the Council. If Cameron wanted.

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1. European voters
StephenDawson 06/04/2014
Who are these European voters who are apparently being disenfranchised? Were they Germans - the poll reported by Bild said just 7% knew Junker was the EPP's candidate? Were they the Britons (or residents of the other 12 neglected countries) who Junker didn't even bother to come and talk to? There are hardly any real European voters - in reality we have 28 national elections to a European body. Even ignoring the fact for a moment that very very few voters had heard of Junker, and even fewer cast their votes on that basis, the EPP only got 28% of the seats on a 43% turnout. It can hardly be described as a ringing endorsement. I find it worrying that regarding our countries' leaders having a significant say in who should be the next Commission president is somehow anti-democratic. National leaders carry far more democratic accountability, recognition and media reporting than anything the European Parliament does.
2. Juncker
juliandixon101 06/04/2014
Nobody has voted for Mr Juncker and most people in Europe have no idea who this man is. Remember that last year Der Spiegel described him as an 'idiot' over the spying scandal which forced his resignation. This is yesterday's man who admits to failing to run his own country properly, who claims that Europe is better run behind closed doors, who the Dutch prime minister says drinks too much, yet Der Spiegel say he must be in charge of Europe. Who is the idiot around here?
3. Not blackmail but an explanation
idbeckett 06/04/2014
You characterise the issue throughout the article as being between Germany and Britain, while mentioning as an aside that Sweden, Hungary and Netherlands are also opposed to Juncker. One has to ask why these three countries are largely ignored in your analysis. I will accept your belief that Cameronís advisers did indeed underestimate the response of German politicians and media but likewise your suggestion that the British public regard Juncker as elected by European voters as laughable is accurate. A man with 28,014 votes in the UK has no legitimacy and his imposition will contribute in a major way to increased euroscepticism here. The EPP are in favour of further federalisation, how on earth could a Eurosceptic Conservative Party stay within such a group, as such AfD may be a more appropriate match. While you describe Cameronís actions as blackmail, I would tell you that he knows that the current UK relationship with the EU is entirely unsustainable and has little or no public support; even pro EU groups are calling for major reorganisation. As such Cameron needs a genuine renegotiation if he is to obtain a Yes in any referendum. Given that Juncker is unlikely to assist in such a radical reform agenda Cameron is simply the messenger telling other leaders the consequence of his appointment. Call it blackmail if you want to be emotive, but from here it looks like pragmatic advice. On a personal note I am hoping for Juncker as President with Schulz in some other high profile position, both acting with political courage to ceaselessly push their programme with lots of press coverage. As an added bonus if you could use Tony Blair in some central position it would be appreciated.
4. Spitzenkandidat
Crawford 06/04/2014
The very name, 'Spitzenkandidat', of the process for selecting the new Commission President speaks volumes about the tension between the importance attributed it by the German public and the unawareness of and disinterest in it amongst the rest of Europe. Why then should the German obsession with this procedure trump the political needs of the wider EU? What is more, Mr Juncker has been prime minister of a country with a distinctly murky existence as a tax haven and as such may pose a serious obstacle to the important work of ridding Europe of precisely this problem. Rather, it would be wise for the candidate to fit the following criteria: 1. Able to restore confidence in the EU to some extent through personal appeal. 2. Willing and able to reform Europe to serve two aims: (i) deal with the EU-wide legitimacy problem and (ii) keep UK and other fringe states in the fold. 3. Capable of steering Europe through the remains of the Eurocrisis. As such the candidate should be from a Eurozone state. 4. Sure up France's position in Europe with the selection of a French candidate. Pascal Lamy is a strong fit for this role.
5. David Cameron
Frank VArnold 06/04/2014
I think you have completely misread the "threats", so called. This surprises me for such a distinguished magazine which I have read and enjoyed for a long time. You need to be aware of some basic issues: # anti-EU feeling in UK is strong and growing; # if Cameron is to lose face it will be with the British for not being confrontational enough; # Britain will leave the EU, soon and will become a nucleus for the slow disintegration of the EU, which will be accelerated by Germany's long term wish to join a Northern Prosperity Sphere with Russia, thereby seeking energy security for the long term; # I speak as a "natural" European, having been born in Italy of an Italian mother; when I look at the EU nowadays I am reminded of the Tower of Babel.
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