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Cameron’s futile Juncker battle is the Passchendaele of our time

As we approach a crucial European council summit to be held in Ypres on the 26th June and Brussels on the 27th, the UK’s reputation in the European Union continues to slide, writes Tim McNamara.

The UK Prime Minister’s history of negotiating change at the European Union level has been one of a pointless veto, recalcitrant negotiation techniques on most matters and implacable opposition to any development that he does not fully agree with (or rather, that he is allowed to agree with by the Euro-sceptics in his party).

To the rest of the EU, the UK seems to have had a fundamental personality change. Whilst previously, the UK was always seen as a sensible brake on the more enthusiastic federalists in the EU, it is now perceived as a cantankerous obstacle. Decades of diplomatic panache and finesse by the UK’s foreign office staff seems to have been written off completely.

It’s as if London has caught a geopolitical version of Alzheimer’s disease as far as the EU is concerned and is becoming more prone to memory loss, irritability, aggressiveness and delusional symptoms.

The UK government’s recent claim that France vetoed Chris Patten’s presidency hopes is nonsense. Even though the Treaty of Nice allowed for qualified majority voting for the post of European commission president in 2004, Cameron’s people are claiming that they should be able to do something similar now as they claim that in 2004 the UK accepted France’s objections and did not push for a vote.

This is a total misreading of history (diagnostic memory loss?). It was utterly inconceivable that a Labour party prime minster would campaign for a UK Conservative party candidate as European commission president. Denis McShane, the then Europe minister dismissed the claim, over the weekend, as having no foundation whatsoever.

Cameron’s strategy of winning a referendum in the UK by extracting concessions from the other EU governments may be his ultimate goal but he is busy alienating the very allies he has to depend on in the future. It may be that Merkel et al will ultimately indulge him in his proposed reform agenda, but he has wasted a huge amount of political capital in his forlorn opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy for commission president.

It seems quite bizarre that Cameron has gone out on a limb to try and block Juncker. The president of the commission may have influence but he/she is, by no means, a defining figure in legislative terms. The Barroso presidency has been marked with rising inter-governmentalism and it’s unlikely that the bigger member states will easily allow the commission to regain some of its old ascendency.

Cameron’s real target should have been the Spitzenkandidaten process, which was, and is, a power grab by the parliament. Juncker is, in reality, a by-product of the process. It is utterly self-defeating that Cameron has made it personal over Juncker. He has, in reality, driven up a narrow cul de sac with no reverse gear.

Cameron should and could have added up the support for Juncker two weeks ago and admitted defeat gracefully. He could then have persuaded the other EU leaders to make a declaration in Ypres that, whilst the European council was happy to appoint Juncker it would have dismissed the Spitzenkandidaten process, as it is currently formulated, as democratically flawed.

Even when he was challenging for the leadership of the Conservative party in 2005, when out of government, he displayed a real sense of naivety about the EU. In order to shore up his support amongst Euro-sceptic Tory MPs, he   rashly promised to lead his party out of the main centre-right party grouping (the European People’s Party – EPP) in the EU. Every issue of substance in the EU since then has seen Cameron taking aim with a metaphorical shotgun and then shooting himself in the foot.

Cameron’s apparent goal of obtaining substantial reform in the EU (that, he believes, has to be in the UK’s national interest) and then winning a possible referendum in 2017 was always going to be a Herculean task. His chances of drawing out significant concessions from the other 27 member states (especially France and Germany acting in tandem) grow slightly dimmer every time the UK takes an absolutist position.

With the German federal elections and French presidential elections due in 2017, now would have been the time to set out the negotiating box and road map for EU reform that would have assuaged most of the UK’s current concerns. Instead, we are treated to the spectacle of a British prime minister fighting the diplomatic equivalent of trench warfare instead of a war of manoeuvre.

Former UK defence secretary Liam Fox told the BBC that “it’s been a real pleasure watching a British prime minister do what he thinks is right in Europe. Now he may not win the battle, but it is so much better to see a prime minister willing to fight a battle and take a bloody nose than not fight at all.”

Fox, a current Tory MP and ardent Euro-sceptic, has strong links to the republican right in the USA. One could point out that it was the exact same concept of pointless sacrifice that led to Ypres becoming the symbolic site for the British of commemoration of the war dead in the First World War.

The third battle of Ypres was also called Passchendaele. In his memoirs (1938) Lloyd George wrote: “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign.”

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.

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