When David Cameron strode into a meeting of European Union leaders on Tuesday, he was adamant that it must not be business as usual after the electoral bruising the bloc took at the hands of the far right. But anyone looking for a seismic shift in policy while the EU leaders dined on their salmon carpaccio and beef and artichokes would have been disappointed.
While the words “growth and jobs” were on the lips of nearly every leader, they are at odds over how best to achieve this. Much of the post-summit press conferences was devoted to a spat over who will lead the next European Commission, an obsession in Brussels only likely to further alienate the electorates.
And Mr Cameron’s indignant statement casting himself as the man standing up to petty EU meddling was not exactly a fresh line from him, rather a repeat of his rhetoric at most EU summits.
Change was brewing elsewhere in the Belgian capital, however. After the leaders scraped their plates clean and headed home, they were replaced by their adversaries. Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National arrived in Brussels for talks on forming a new parliament group devoted to dismantling the powers of the bloc. Nigel Farage of Ukip also spent a day in meetings to boost support for his Eurosceptic parliament group.
Mr Farage had earlier expressed shock that despite anti-EU and protest parties managing to roughly double their showing and win around 140 seats, the discourse in Brussels appeared unchanged. “You wouldn’t have thought anything had happened at all,” he said.
Hopes for immediate answers from a notoriously sluggish institution are unrealistic, however. Tuesday’s dinner was just the opening salvo as the 28 governments try to piece together their programme of priorities over the next five years. The leaders have at least accepted that the election results must be a wake-up call, even if moderate MEPs do still dominate the 751-seat parliament.
“Voters sent a strong message, and this message was at the heart of our discussions,” said Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council.
Reform now appears inevitable: the question is how deep it will go. One camp advocates a dramatic curb on EU powers, with Mr Cameron leading the cry of “nation states wherever possible, Europe only where necessary”. His reform platform is the most radical, but the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, also called for “fewer rules and less fuss from Europe”. The other panacea – pushed by France and Germany – is deeper economic integration in the bloc to create long-term growth and jobs, although there is disagreement over what form this should take.
This fundamental divide over more or less Europe is mirrored in many smaller policy differences. The protest parties have very different agendas tapping into distinct national concerns. If the EU tries to paper over one crack, it will simply expose another. Many Britons want curbs on freedom of movement, but that could create more unemployment elsewhere in the bloc. The Greeks gave the top spot to a far-left party which wants to renegotiate their bailout, which if implemented would send even more Germans concerned about their taxes scuttling to anti-EU parties.
“There are some areas where you can find some common ground but its going to be quite difficult,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Most likely, the debate will return to the growth-vs-austerity argument which has dominated Brussels’ gatherings since the advent of the euro crisis, with Italy and France pushing for more investment to stimulate economies, a shift Germany has in the past resisted. They will need to reach a compromise, and a resulting “grand bargain” is also likely to include some scaling back of EU powers in more minor policy areas, Mr Leonard told The Independent.
For once, Mr Cameron does not appear quite so isolated among his peers in Brussels – but there are limits to how receptive other leaders will be. “Cameron will find lots of allies for reforming Europe within the current treaties and tackling welfare tourism or giving more power to national parliaments,” said Mr Leonard. “He won’t get much of a hearing for the idea of treaty change or special provisions for the UK.”