Commission impossible: breaking the grip of Brussels

David Cameron’s cunning plan to prevent the eurozone countries controlling the EU seems destined to fail
  • @johnrentoul

David Cameron’s renegotiation is going well, then. He hasn’t started formal talks on new terms of British membership of the European Union, because renegotiation is Conservative Party policy not government policy, but an important preliminary takes place this week. EU leaders meet to choose a new President of the European Commission, and that seems to have gone wrong for Cameron. No 10 now says it is “unlikely that Jean-Claude Juncker will not win”.

The change of tune from a couple of weeks ago is remarkable. Then, we were told that Cameron had stopped Juncker, painted as the anti-reform candidate, and that he was winning the big debates about Europe’s future. Not only that, but the Tories had turned back the Ukip advance at home by holding on to a seat in a by-election for the first time in government for 25 years.

I had assumed that Cameron had firm understandings with enough leaders to constitute a blocking minority in the choice of Jose Manuel Barroso’s successor. Why would he have been so emphatic otherwise? Yet when Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP, asked ironically at Prime Minister’s Questions how his campaign to stop Juncker was going, Cameron pointed out that Labour didn’t want “this person” as Commission President either, and declared: “I do not mind how many people on the European Council disagree with me; I will fight this right to the very end.”

The change from “I’m winning because I’m right” to “I’m losing but I’m right” had Tory MPs cheering and waving their order papers, but it is ominous for Cameron’s plan for a referendum in 2017. It may be that there is still a chance of blocking Juncker, and that Cameron has calculated that, by publicly challenging other leaders who have obviously said different things in private, he could still defeat the federalist bogey, while earning points for putting up a good fight if he loses. It also increases the chances of a better deal for Britain in the haggling over other EU posts and what not. But it must make working with the Commission more difficult.

More significantly, though, it means that Cameron has misread Angela Merkel, his most important ally. After the European election, he warned her that choosing Juncker would make it harder for him to win his referendum. Contrary to what she thought, this was not a “threat” to leave, explained one adviser: “He wants European leaders to understand quite how deep Eurosceptic feeling is in Britain.” But they seem ready to ignore him anyway.

There are enough flaws in the renegotiation plan already. Renegotiation may be what the British electorate want – the middle way between staying in the EU come what may and leaving – but it looks more and more like the cosmetic renegotiation secured by Harold Wilson for his referendum in 1975, which will make it harder to win.

Another problem is that, if Cameron is still in coalition with the “party of in” after the election, it would be hard to agree a joint negotiating posture with Nick Clegg. A referendum would not be an obstacle to a renewed coalition, Clegg has already hinted, but he made the mistake in his debate with Nigel Farage of saying the EU in 10 years’ time would be “quite similar to what it is now”.

Even if Cameron were to win his own majority next year, there is a problem with the main question of substance.

This was set out with stark clarity by George Osborne, the Chancellor, in a speech in January: “If we cannot protect the collective interests of non-eurozone member states then they will have to choose between joining the euro, which the UK will not do, or leaving the EU.”

The main aim of Cameron and Osborne’s negotiation would be to stop EU business being decided automatically by the eurozone. The voting rules will change in 2016, giving euro countries the power under qualified majority voting to outvote the non-euro members. Cameron and Osborne want a “double majority” system that would give a majority of euro countries or a majority of non-euro countries the right to block proposals.

This sounds reasonable, except that Andrew Lilico of Europe Economics has pointed out a problem: five more countries plan to adopt the euro by 2020, starting with Lithuania in January. Even if that timetable slips a few years, that would leave only Poland, Sweden, Denmark and Bulgaria with the UK in the non-euro club, with just under a quarter of the EU’s population.

Given that the UK has an eighth of the EU population, we alone would constitute a majority of the non-euros, which would imply that we alone would have a veto over everything. It is hard to see our Junckerised partners agreeing to that.

Cameron often scoffs at people who said it would be “impossible” for him to veto the banking treaty, or to block the rise in the EU’s budget, which he thinks were his finest hours on the Continent so far, but negotiating new terms of UK membership is a quite different kind of “impossible”.