David Cameron's defeat by Jean-Claude Juncker has set Britain up for an EU referendum win

The Europeans – led by Germany – who don't want the UK to leave, ought to be more accommodating next time

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Did David Cameron's defeat by Jean-Claude Juncker take Britain closer to the EU exit? That was the theme of much of the post-summit coverage. Indeed, it was a theme of Cameron's post-summit news conference: "The job has got harder of keeping Britain in a reformed Europe. The stakes are higher."

And it was the premise of Ed Miliband's criticism of the Prime Minister yesterday: "The choice is between Labour, which would win the argument and build alliances for reform, or David Cameron, who by his own admission is taking the country towards the exit door, threatening three million jobs across the UK."

I am not convinced that Juncker's appointment as president of the Commission does actually take us nearer to this fabled door. Nor do I think, despite what I wrote here last week, that Cameron has handled the appointment as badly as many pro-Europeans say, taking full advantage of the luxury of hindsight.

First, though, let us dispose of Miliband's nonsense. The claim that Cameron "by his own admission" is "taking the country towards the exit" is a twisting of the facts. The Prime Minister's argument is that the 26 countries that voted for Juncker make it harder for him to keep Britain in the EU. He is observing, in his role as chief political commentator to the entire continent, that having Juncker in the top job in the bureaucracy makes it harder to persuade British voters that EU membership is in their interest.

Cameron has been explicit for some time that he wants Britain to stay in the EU. He says Juncker makes it more difficult to do that, not that he wants to take the country out.

What is Labour's answer to that? They didn't want Juncker either. Presumably they agree with Cameron that another candidate would have been more in Britain's interest. The only reason a Labour government wouldn't "take the country towards the exit door", therefore, is that it wouldn't have a referendum, so it wouldn't give the voters that chance.

Or perhaps a Labour government would have stopped Juncker's appointment by "winning the argument and building alliances". Well, perhaps. The trouble was, as Cameron found, that you cannot beat somebody with nobody, and he didn't have an alternative candidate lined up. Perhaps the far-sighted Miliband and his foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, would have seen this coming and would have squared Christine Lagarde long ago. But I don't think so.

So the only question was how Cameron should have dealt with Angela Merkel saying that she was prepared to consider other candidates and then that she wasn't. In the end, he had only two options: he could have said, "Oh all right then," or he could have said, as he did on Friday, "You have to be prepared to lose a battle in order to win a war."

Whether or not you think that was a reasonable decision depends on your view of Europe. If you want to stay in and think that the way to get the best deal for Britain is to "build alliances" by being nice to people, it was a mistake. But if you want to stay in and think that you get the best deal by kicking up a fuss and even threatening to leave – and therefore, for the threat to be credible, ultimately being prepared to do so – then Cameron handled it about as well as he could.

It depends, too, on your view of the European Parliament. If you think the way to make the EU more democratic is to give the biggest bloc in the parliament the right to nominate the Commission president, you would welcome Juncker's appointment. If, on the other hand, you think this is an even more undemocratic backroom stitch-up than the horse-trading that used to go on among EU leaders, you should welcome Cameron's stand.

In fact, the Prime Minister won a significant victory on Friday: it was just hard to notice it because, although the "conclusions" of the Council are published in French and something that looks like English, they need to be further translated. Fortunately, I know an old Brussels hand who was able to do this for me. The conclusions say: "Once the new European Commission is effectively in place, the European Council will consider the process for the appointment of the President of the European Commission for the future, respecting the European Treaties." Translation: those schemers in the parliament may have got away with it this time but they won't the next.

That is an important gain, and it could be the first of many. Cameron also secured a downpayment on his renegotiation of the terms of Britain's EU membership. Another conclusion of last week's Council was to "note" that the concept of "ever closer union", from which Cameron wants to exclude Britain, "allows for different paths". Those countries that want to deepen integration can move ahead, "while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further". That doesn't need much translation: other leaders are willing to help Cameron with renegotiation if it doesn't require them to give up anything difficult.

That is why I'm not sure that Juncker's victory does mean that we are closer to the exit. As Hamish McRae argues today, our choice ultimately might be between being half-in or half-out. But if there is a referendum in three years' time, I still think we would vote to stay in. We are often told that the continentals are fed up with the British being difficult, and that the common German attitude to us is the same as that of many English people to the Scots: "If they're daft enough…" But just like the English with the Scots, they really don't want us to go. Not least because the Germans would find themselves being outvoted by southern Europe.

Merkel couldn't accommodate Cameron this time. Her own party and the German press wouldn't let her. But his defeat last week might mean that she – and the others who don't want Britain to go – will try harder next time.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

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