In the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was battling for her 'money back' from Brussels, there was a joke doing the rounds among the other EU negotiators. 'How do you tell the British aircraft when it lands in Brussels?' they asked. 'It’s the one that goes on whining after the engines are switched off,' came the reply.
The UK prime minister’s single-minded battle for a budget rebate aroused a mixture of exasperation and amusement, but also sneaking admiration. Having brought decision-making to a virtual standstill on the rest of the EU agenda, her stubbornness won the day.
Thirty years after the Fontainebleau summit that agreed the UK budget rebate, those tactics seem to be wearing very thin. David Cameron’s efforts to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg prime minister, as next president of the European Commission, failed.
In a much enlarged EU, embracing the former communist states of central and eastern Europe that are eager to become fully-paid up members of the club, British pleas for special treatment attract much less sympathy.
Yet what is most baffling about Cameron’s campaign against the mild-mannered Juncker has been the UK prime minister’s apparent determination – egged on by the British media – to demonize the man, rather than the substance. It has alienated even sympathetic EU partners, such as Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, not to mention Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Only the erratic Viktor Orbán of Hungary remains an ally.
'We played the man not the ball, which is fair enough provided you are not caught doing it,' Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, veteran UK ambassador to the EU, told the Guardian.
Juncker has been vilified as an ardent 'federalist' by Downing Street spin-doctors, and most of the British media, without any attempt either to explain or define the meaning of the word. He is dismissed as incapable of carrying out the sort of reform agenda Cameron says the EU needs – although the British prime minister has also been deliberately vague about what he wants.
The Luxembourger has been around a long time in EU politics, to be sure. He was involved in the Maastricht negotiations laying the foundations of the euro, and played a crucial role in the mid-1990s negotiating the stability and growth pact that reconciled French and German differences on controlling debts and deficits in the future eurozone.
In 1994, he was Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s preferred choice to succeed Jacques Delors as commission president. The UK vetoed Jean-Luc Dehaene of Belgium, also on the grounds that he was too 'federalist'. But Jacques Santer, Luxembourg prime minister, refused to nominate Juncker, wanting the job himself.
Juncker is a wily negotiator, a deal maker, and while soft-spoken, can also be witty and waspish. What worries Merkel is that he is known for speaking off-the-cuff, and he does not hide his irritation with backdoor dealing between the big capitals of Europe.
What seems to most offend the British high command is precisely that: Juncker is a passionate believer in the primacy of the institutions of the EU, and the importance of the 'community method' in reaching decisions.
As the former leader of one of the smallest states in the union, he is strongly opposed to the sort of 'inter-governmentalism' that sees decisions stitched up by the big member states outside the council chamber, whether they be France and Germany alone, or others including the UK.
In Berlin this week, he rejected the idea of a 'United States of Europe'. But he said the creation of the euro had been a great source of stability – which certainly runs counter to the British view that the whole project has been a train wreck waiting to happen. Juncker argued that, without a common currency, the EU would have been torn apart by currency turbulence in the past decade.
He spelt out his belief in the importance of the European Commission in an essay written in 2012.
'The commission alone cannot achieve everything,' he said, 'but nothing can be achieved without it . . . It is the commission’s role to keep the ambition of the European project alive.
'But the commission is not a government, and I do not believe that the current treaties allow for moving in that direction. Still, Europe needs more legitimacy. One way to achieve that is to have a directly elected European president.'
Yet he still believes in the nation states as the heart of the decision-making process. 'Governments are accountable to their national parliaments. It is from them that they receive the mandate and the legitimacy to act at the European level, on behalf of the people who elected them. There is no way this fundamental democratic principle could be put into question, or its importance diminished.'
Cameron could not have put it better. Yet the suspicion in the rest of Europe is that the UK prime minister’s idea of reform is to restore sovereignty to national capitals for its own sake, not to make the system work better. Juncker wants the EU to be both more efficient and more democratic.
There lies the rub. Cameron’s motives in opposing Juncker are mistrusted by his partners. In making the campaign so personal, he actually strengthened the Luxembourger’s chances. By suggesting that his nomination would make a UK exit from Europe more likely, he hugely overplayed his hand. Baroness Thatcher would not have made the same mistake.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times
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