David Cameron’s failure to defeat the candidature of Jean-Claude Juncker has been variously described as a humiliation, a catastrophe for Britain, and an example of Cameron’s principle and European leaders cowardice. The Guardian’s Toby Helm has possibly the best analysis of what actually happened, why and how. It seems relatively few EU leaders were keen on Mr. Juncker’s appointment and that there was annoyance at a minor political coup by the EU parliament claiming that the result of the elections mandated Juncker. However, EU leaders and especially Merkel, were not willing to fight the issue when the principle of the candidate of the largest group in the European election becoming President of the European Commission, gained widespread support: especially in the German media. When Merkel accepted Juncker, Cameron’s other potential allies (apart from the Hungarians) left him and rowed in behind Juncker.
Much of the analysis has been whether this episode will weaken Cameron’s hand in the putative renegotiation of Britain’s place in Europe to which he has committed himself. Tories claim it will not hurt him, citing recent suggestions from the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m willing to walk an extra mile to make the argument that ‘OK if you dislike this, it could be done in others ways’.”
Others have pointed to widespread irritation with Cameron’s tactics and behaviour at this and other EU summit meetings as indicative of a reluctance from the other European countries to accede to Cameron and Britain’s demands.
The realities of all this are difficult to understand. On Europe many in Britain (and Europe) adopt positions as dogmatic and ideologically based as any here in Northern Ireland.
The median position on Europe within the United Kingdom is probably supportive of remaining within the EU if significant reforms can be delivered. Those reforms are, however, ones which are likely to be very difficult for many in Europe to stomach – probably most totemic being universal freedom of movement. Preventing uncontrolled mass migration from within the EU seems to be a red line to very many in the UK especially in the East of England / East Midlands which have been most affected by widespread inwards migration. If sufficiently radical reforms are not offered it is very difficult to tell whether the population of the UK would vote to stay in the EU: many think currently they would vote to leave.
In contrast it is very difficult to see many in Europe allowing Britain to tear up cherished concepts such as freedom of movement. Since the remaining restrictions were lifted on the newer accession countries recently, it would be a huge step backwards in the “ever closer union” to see them being re-imposed.
A further difficulty is that, as the recent European election results have shown, the median position in other European countries, most particularly France with the victory of the National Front, is becoming less supportive of the “European Project”. Eurosceptic parties of left and right also did well in Denmark, Greece and Spain.
It is extraordinarily difficult to gauge the typical position of the median European voter. It is difficult in one country (eg the UK) let alone a large country (USA) so finding a typical position amongst the disparate countries of Europe is impossible. However, in so much as a typical position can be determined, and backed up by the occasions when various countries voters have been given referenda, it seems that whilst most Europeans support the EU, they do not necessarily support ever closer union (with the possible exception of the Germans).
This might make one think that Cameron’s job would be made a little easier despite his defeat last week and despite any personal difficulties with the other leaders he may have. It could be suggested that his position – the EU but much looser- is a popular position and one which is gaining in popularity.
That would, however, probably be mistaken. It is likely to be possible to offer the UK enough concessions to make it practically certain that the majority of the electorate will vote to stay in Europe. However, such concessions would probably be unacceptable to others in Europe as they would, unless extended to other countries, give the UK a significant advantage. Furthermore there would be a very grave danger that populations of other European countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands would then demand the same concessions. Hence, offering the UK the concessions needed to keep it in the club would run the risk of a domino effect resulting in many other countries demanding the same concessions and fatally undermining the “ever closer union” project.
As such those in power in Europe and especially those in the EU bureaucracy, although they would prefer the UK to stay in Europe, might well prefer to let her leave than make the concessions needed to make her stay.
That second option (leaving) is a risk for the UK but is one which increasing numbers of Britons seem willing to take. However, the UK leaving would also be a risk for the EU. If Britain did badly after leaving it would have a minor but possibly noticeable effect on European economies (especially exporting ones such as Germany’s). It would, however, confirm to them the wisdom of the EU project and if a humiliated UK ever wanted back in they could demand their pound of flesh (actually half kilo of flesh) several times over. More dangerous, however, would be if the UK became more prosperous than she currently is. That would imply that getting rid of the EU’s rules and having control of her own affairs was a significant advantage. That would create an even more dangerous potential domino effect in Europe with other countries demanding exit.
The only options which would be favourable to the maintenance of the status quo in Europe: the UK staying and accepting the current arrangements or leaving and being economically humiliated are precisely the ones which would be unacceptable or unfavourable to the UK either politically or economically. Conversely those favourable to the UK would be bad for the current “European Project.”
It seems that De Gaulle was maybe prescient all those years ago when he vetoed British membership to the EU. He said France would back commercial exchanges with Britain – “be it called association or by any other name” - but that was all. Letting the UK into the club all those years ago might yet be proved to have sown the seeds of the project’s demise.