As David Cameron travels to Brussels to try to recoup lost ground, he will at least be able to agree with the new EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, on one point. Speaking of the wave of apathy and hostility to the EU expressed in May’s elections by the peoples of Europe, Mr Juncker told MEPs this week. “We have to allay their fears and fulfil their hopes.”
In a mood of conciliation, or as much of one as could be expected from a traditional Continental federalist who has been briefed against by British spin doctors for his smoking and drinking, Mr Juncker also conceded that the EU was trying to do too much, that it should concentrate on the bigger picture. The principle of “subsidiarity” was mentioned, a word that has not been heard much since the days of John Major and Douglas Hurd (in retrospect a golden age for British/EU relations).
Lord Hill, the UK’s nominated new EU commissioner, may get an important portfolio, as a consolation for the public humiliation of the Prime Minister over Mr Juncker’s appointment. Mr Cameron’s worst fears, however, will have been realised when Mr Juncker explicitly stated that the EU Commission – which enjoys no democratic mandate – should be a “political” body rather than simply a civil service. No less comforting for Mr Cameron, or for anyone with a care for Europe’s competitive position, Mr Juncker seems keen to impose new taxes on the financial sector. He also attempted an absurd defence of the euro as a unifying force, where the agonising experience of the recent past suggests it is quite the opposite. Mr Juncker’s pledge that there will be no new members of the EU for five years may suit Mr Cameron more; his defence of the free movement of people much less. Some harmonisation of tax levels in Europe is desirable, to prevent tax dodging by transnationals – but not at the cost of further eroding European companies’ ability to sell goods and services in world markets.
What is most apparent is that Mr Cameron will find it impossible to reach the kind of renegotiation he could offer the British people in his planned in/out referendum – and that is assuming he wins anything like a convincing majority at the next election. As a head of a minority administration, or in a renewed coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Mr Cameron’s own democratic mandate and political power at home would be severely compromised. Appointing the Eurosceptic Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary may not prove a winning move. Even at this distance we can discern the risk: that the Cameron-Hammond duo will go to the country with a deal so poor it is rejected.
Thus have the past few days nudged us closer to “Brexit”, a catastrophic British exit from Europe. The EU, unfashionable as it may be to say it, is central to solving many of the huge issues facing every member including the UK – competitiveness, migration, climate change, terrorism and maintaining peace itself. Yet just as the UK needs to be more constructive and positive, so too the EU needs to be more democratic and reformist. To paraphrase the rapper Ice Cube: the EU better check itself, before it wrecks itself.