Cameron’s diplomatic vandalism weakens Britain’s position in future negotiations

by Callum Anderson

As the dust settles on the prime minister’s failure to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next President of the European Commission, we can now be clear on one thing: David Cameron is unfit to lead Britain’s renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union.

It is hard to comprehend how this could have gone much worse for Mr Cameron. Indeed, Britain has never had a prime minister who is so unable to build alliances with their European allies.

Even in the early days of his leadership of the Conservative Party (before Mr Cameron became prime minister in 2010), he showed signs of, at best, naivety and, at worst, dangerous incompetence on European issues.

The mistake that is undoubtedly at the root of David Cameron’s problems with our EU partners was his decision in 2009 to take Conservative MEPs out of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament. One only needs an ounce of common sense to conclude that isolating the Conservative Party from a political grouping that included Angela Merkel’s CDU and France’s UMP, was extremely unwise.

As Eunice Goes correctly points out, not only did this decision upset Mrs Merkel, and the then-President Sarkozy, but also effectively voted out of influencing European politics. Had the Conservative Party been a member of that group, Mr Cameron could have used backroom diplomacy to prevent Juncker from becoming the EPP’s “Spitzenkandidaten” at their March meeting.

However, Mr Cameron missed the boat. He chose to reorient the Conservative Party’s political allegiances within the European Parliament towards the fringe European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, who, as well as know, included partners who held highly distasteful views on race and sexuality (to mention just a few).

The result of this led to the Conservatives within the European Parliament, and thus the UK Government, to be wholly isolated from the key decision making. As a result, Mr Cameron was powerless to prevent Mr Juncker from proclaiming himself as the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the European centre-right.

Instead, as Lord Mandelson accurately put it to Radio 4’s Today programme, the prime minister resorted to  “waving around this threat of a referendum in Britain as if it’s some sort of pistol that we’re holding to everyone’s head and saying ‘you’ve got to agree with us, or else,” when he realised the key decisions weren’t going his way.

Following Mr Juncker’s confirmation as European Commission President, the biggest negotiation of Cameron’s prime ministership lies ahead – the mission to reset the UK’s terms of engagement with the EU in a way that enables him to win 2017’s mooted in-out referendum and keep Britain in Europe. That challenge was always going to be a tough one. It has just got much tougher.

As I have argued elsewhere, Mr Cameron cannot simply assume that Angel Merkel will ride to his rescue, despite her supposed offering of an ‘olive branch’ to listen to ‘Britain’s concerns; she has her own domestic political dynamics to contend with. Her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SDP), are likely to prove extremely difficult to persuade on the merits of repatriating certain EU ideals, such as social policy legislation and the freedom of movement.

And, as we have seen in the last few weeks, once Mrs Merkel makes up her mind, it almost certainly follow that the leaders of the other 25 EU Member States (save for, perhaps, Hungary) are likely to support her position. Which is why it was, and continues to be, essential that the UK Government dedicates itself to building sustainable and mutually beneficial alliances, particularly with Germany. Not doing so will inevitably lead to British isolation, humiliation and irrelevance within the EU.

Mr Cameron has no choice but to commit to the painstaking task of building alliances in the EU. Moreover, if necessary, he must give that alliance-building national-interest goal higher priority than winning the Commons plaudits of his hardline Eurosceptics.

The fact of the matter is that Britain’s relationship with the European Union now is as precarious as it’s been in a generation. It would take exceptional diplomatic and negotiation skill to overturn this situation. Unfortunately, the events of the last month have shown that the prime minister may simply not be up to it.

Callum Anderson works at a national charity

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2 Responses to “Cameron’s diplomatic vandalism weakens Britain’s position in future negotiations”

  1. Mike Stallard says:

    Socialism has always been an international movement, well above nationalism. I wonder if that is still the case? If it is, then the obvious course for Socialists to follow must be European integration and then absorption of the rest of the area into the Union, run, of course, on Socialist lines.
    After all, the founders (Monnet, Delors, Barroso) were all very much of the Socialist era.

    If we take this line, then Mr Cameron is indeed a disaster. He stands for nationalism, for an EU minority, for history and for parliamentary democracy in different countries. It is noteworthy that the right (Hannan, Dr North, Helmer, the Eurosceptics) are very much for this point of view.

  2. Ex Labour says:

    Firstly I would point out that not only Cameron opposed Junker, but one Miliband E. also did. Yes I know it’s hard to comprehend that Miliband actually made a decision, but he did eventually come out against the arch federalist. So if Cameron opposes what Junker stands for, can we assume that Miliband also opposes Junkers ideals ? The obvious conclusion is yes.

    Secondly, it may have slipped your notice, but many European leaders came out in support of Cameron’s position after Junker had been confirmed, not least of these was Merkel, who incidentally has said on many occasions previously that she agrees with Cameron on many aspects of EU reform. Just about the only opposition to Cameron continues to be Hollande, a socialist who has been a disaster for his country, who coincidentally Miliband seems to hold in high regard. What does this tell us about Miliband? Probably not much more than we already know.

    You also disregard the possibility in that opposing Junker with no real prospect of success plays into the public’s view that Europe is a fraudulent, undemocratic and elitist socialist club and with that Cameron’s stock rises. Certainly the polls jumped 5 points in his favour, so maybe, just maybe, the strategists are playing a clever game.

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