It was a defeat long foretold, but that does not diminish the scale of the debacle David Cameron suffered in Ypres last night. His tone afterwards was self-righteous: his fellow leaders would “live to regret” their support for Jean-Claude Juncker as the President of the European Commission, which was “a sad moment for Europe”. But his abject failure to halt the Juncker juggernaut, which gained the support of 26 out of 28 leaders, was an even sadder moment for Mr Cameron himself, and for Britain.
The candidacy of Mr Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, aroused enthusiasm among very few, even in the upper ranks of the Eurocrats. He is a walking, talking symbol of all that is out of date and out of touch about the union as currently constituted, and he was not even favoured by Angela Merkel, who was unimpressed by his handling of the euro crisis. But in a spectacular display of political miscalculation, Mr Cameron converted that indifference and dislike into reluctant but almost total support, painting himself into a corner which in the end he shared only with Viktor Orban, the authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary.
As Labour’s shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, pointed out earlier this week, Mr Cameron had made the mistake of “playing the man, not the ball” over Mr Juncker’s appointment, taking an aggressively personal tone against a figure who is immensely well knitted into conservative forces across the bloc.
Mr Cameron would have been far better to play it the EU way – keeping his hostile views about Mr Juncker wrapped in the language of diplomacy while quietly building a consensus against him. The Eurosceptic tendency in his party would have been frustrated by his failure to throw thunderbolts, but if patient, behind-the-scenes work had resulted in the emergence of a better candidate, he could have basked in the plaudits of reformists everywhere.
The anger and frustration expressed in unprecedented support for Eurosceptic parties and candidates in the recent European parliamentary elections would have had an answering response at the union’s highest level. The sense of impotence and disdain of which the huge swings to parties such as France’s Front National and Greece’s Golden Dawn were such alarming and dangerous indications would potentially have gone into remission, and the EU would have proved that it was able to heed and respond to criticism.
Instead, we now have the worst of all possible results: a superannuated fixer destined to run the Commission in the bad old way; a European Union increasingly polarised between those for whom it continues to be a first-class gravy train, and those millions who have ceased to believe it can be reformed, and who will be increasingly swayed by the siren voices of extreme nationalists; and the UK penned in ever lonelier isolation on the Union’s fringes, its slim hopes of bringing about real reform reduced even further.
Britain’s only viable future is within a reformed European Union, and the repercussions of the failure to make a start on reform could be severe. Mr Cameron vowed to fight and fight again to bring the necessary changes. “Sometimes you must be ready to lose a battle to win a war,” he said after the vote. But this attempt at Churchillian grandstanding rang hollow, and if there was any real strategic thinking behind yesterday’s pratfall, it was hard to spot it.