Cameron and the EU: What’s good for business versus the democratic deficit?

So the EU leaders meet today, and it surely has to say something Jean Claude Juncker seems already confident of getting the job of President of the European Commission.

For those who don’t know, Jean Claude is that Luxembourger geezer with the dodgy line in what happens when things get serious. And that’s not even mentioning his past “entanglement in Luxembourg intelligence affairs”.

The odd thing is not just Cameron’s obvious distain for playing the European game (given this has been on the cards for over a year, he’s had time to play a better Euro hand than he has), is just how Europe managed to get itself lumbered with Juncker.

Alex Harrowell at Fistful of Euros:

What we want here is the freies Spiel der Kräfte, as the Germans say at these moments, the free play of forces. If the S&D and some combination of the Greens, the radical Left, and the Liberals could put together a majority, why not? Let them try. It will do us all the world of good. But the problem is that precisely this is what all sorts of people have been trying to prevent. Schulz mustn’t form a coalition, and must be stopped from even being Juncker’s deputy, so Germany gets to replace Olli Rehn.

The degree to which the EU institutions function as a way of restraining, filtering, and preventing democracy has rarely been so clear. The original idea of having Spitzenkandidaten itself is being blamed by German government briefers on Schulz, as a socialist plot to weaken Merkel. If the Parliament wants to add to its power as against the Commission or the Council, it can try, but under one unspoken condition: that nothing changes beyond that. It’s The Leopard in reverse: everything can change, so long as everything goes on as before.

In an earlier piece, Alex wrote:

..any fool can announce they want “more Europe”. But the longer this goes on, the more people vote against it. The great unasked question is what “more Europe” would do. This has been true for years, indeed decades. What would its leaders do with the new powers granted them? Isn’t the content of politics interesting, especially to the citizens who are likely to be its targets?

Instead of any meaningful discussion about what this Europe is going to do, though, we get an intense fight over nominations. The emotional energy of politics is assigned to the struggle between the institutions and the competition between individuals. This leaves nothing for the struggle between ideas or the competition between interests as expressed by the popular vote. But it’s always the way – at the crude level, any dispute in the EU is reduced to virtuous Franco-Germans versus bad Europeans/Eurosceptics, while at a finer level of resolution, any dispute is expressed as a conflict among the institutions.

Juncker appears to be the man no one actually wants, even amongst senior figures on the centre right like Angela Merkel who in response to domestic critics moved from waiverer to settled supporter.

In Italy though, the newly bolstered Renzi at least appears to have a plan in mind. He’s fortunate in that Italy has an upcoming Presidency in which he will want to complete some upcoming business.

His approach Gavin Hewitt notes

…is to bargain. To trade support for concessions.

The Italians have been smart; their priority is winning flexibility over budget rules and targets for reducing the deficit.

They want the next five years to be about growth rather than continuing austerity. They believe they have already got support for a more flexible interpretation of the rules.

Their strategy appears to be to back Mr Juncker now before the start of the Italian Presidency in July. With the top job settled they believe they will be more able to bang the drum for measures to promote growth and jobs.

Italy is also ‘lucky’ in two separate but connected regards.

  1. Its economy is key to the survival of the Eurozone, and still struggling to pull out of a long term nose dive has brought admirable clarity to what Italy needs from the EU.
  2. That state of extremis has the effect of creating clarity around what it wants out of any reform process.


Cameron’s problem on the other hand is in part the UK’s economic difficulties poses no such direct danger for the EU, and accordingly his demands present to others as the same old tired and indistinct British Eurosceptic ennui.

Yet as Charles Grant notes in the FT…

…other EU governments should think carefully about the consequences of a British exit. So far, most have not done so, seeing Britain’s eurosceptics as deranged and its government as guilty of self-harm. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, is a rare voice warning of the damage Britain’s exit would do to the EU’s standing, its ambition of developing strong foreign and defence policies, and its plans on trade and the single market. If other member states want Britain to stay, they should be ready to embrace reform.

That’s a deficit occupying too few just now in Brussels. For respectable but fundamentalist thinkers like Tim Stanley, the answer is already bleedin’ obvious, it’s time to get out before the British nationalist interest is choked by the geezer from Luxembourg:

Cameron created this mess but he is right that if Juncker now wins then it can only be regarded as an affront to our national ambitions and desire to reclaim a little independence.

And while the Europhiles might seethe with frustration, the Eurosceptics owe Cameron a qualified vote of thanks. For he has, unwittingly, proven their case for them: the ambitions of Britain and the ambitions of the EU are so divergent now that it is impossible to reconcile them.

Cameron seemed to imagine that, with a mix of charm and petulance, he could tease the Europeans into reform but his failure demonstrates that the UK cannot negotiate a unique relationship with the EU and cannot halt the drive towards further integration. And if we cannot get what we want, we cannot – by the terms that Cameron has laid out – stay.

However, Robert Peston is much closer to where the deeper politics lie: not the institutions per se but through the organic and separate life that the Euro has taken unto itself:

[Cameron] would agree that the eurozone needs to become more politically integrated to thrive. However he would point out – perfectly properly – that the eurozone and the European Union are not the same.

The problem of course is that there is no easy institutional way to give the eurozone more democratic legitimacy while not simultaneously democratising the European Union as a whole.

No one who has followed the progress of the Euro crisis particularly from the point of view of periphery countries like Ireland, can be in any doubt of the weakness of almost all European institutions in the face of some terrifyingly high seas.

So the Eurosceptics roll the words of 2 Corinthians 6:17 around the palate like a good Burgundy…

Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.

Certainly the needs of the Eurozone are acute and may require much deeper democratic reforms that will not be popular anywhere. Cameron’s position (back on the window ledge of the Union) is at least clear in its headlines, even if the details are currently etched in illegible grey.

The Eurosceptics are largely right that Europe is faceless, bureaucratic, and perhaps almost impossible to reform. It is its own self sustaining narrative. But their alternative going to be no walk in park either.

As the Anglo Swiss commentator Cornelia Meyer put in on the BBC yesterday

…Cameron’s constituency is businesses and his constituency is against a Brixit, so that is really cutting your nose off to spite your face. Look at our exports? We need the EU.

We have so many out of Europe investments in Britain because we have access to the European market that we really really can’t afford to go. He’s playing a very, very dangerous game

And he’s playing it of course because he wants to go against UKIP. This is grandstanding against UKIP but I don’t know whether he’s not just playing into their hands.

Finally, Charles Grant again

In the words of a friendly country’s Europe minister: “Cameron needs to show he can bring solutions to problems.” He should also demonstrate that he is serious about EU reform by spelling out his plans in more detail.

Mr Cameron’s reform ideas will not satisfy the eurosceptics who want Britain out of the EU. But they will have to be confronted if the UK is to be kept in. One bold step would be to rejoin the EPP, which would generate good will and help restore British influence. (Had Mr Cameron never left, he might have stopped the group from nominating Mr Juncker.)

Something relevant and half coherent from British Labour (who have been remarkable mostly for their silence on this debate for much of the last forty years) right now, might be useful.

That they haven’t/can’t may say much more about the EU, than any insult UKIP can throw at it.

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