A panicky David Cameron has apparently told his fellow heads of government that the favourite for the post of President of the European Commission, the former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, would mean a “politicisation” of the Commission, and may even push Britain out of the EU. His distress is understandable: for Mr Cameron, this is about much more than which superannuated Eurocrat gets to run the bureaucracy in Brussels. For the Prime Minister, the personal stakes could not be higher.
Let us recall what was thought to be the Cameron plan. It was that the Prime Minister’s special relationship with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, would deliver a suitably pliant EU Commission President, and, thus, a favourable renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership of the union. Then this inevitable diplomatic triumph would be placed before the British people in a referendum in 2017, who would gratefully vote Yes – a suitable crowning, indeed historic, achievement for Mr Cameron’s premiership. Mr Cameron was thus set to succeed where Margaret Thatcher and John Major had failed – settle the British relationship with Europe, and exorcise the ghost that has haunted the Tory party for decades. That does not look so likely now.
In truth, the odds were always against Mr Cameron, as anyone who listened to Ms Merkel during her visit to London earlier this year will have realised. The Kanzlerin has instead backed the Europhile Mr Juncker. Both Ms Merkel and Mr Juncker have made it plain they don’t think much of the idea of giving Britain special treatment. Given the very public endorsement of Mr Juncker by Ms Merkel; given that her European People’s Party group is the largest in the European Parliament (which now has a say in the selection of the President); and given that Germany is unofficial paymaster to the entire euro-enterprise, it seems certain that Mr Juncker will become the sort of EU Commission President the British Tories will fear and loathe; an old-fashioned and unsympathetic federalist. The EU’s lofty ambition for an “ever closer union” will survive intact. Mr Cameron’s political reputation will not.
We should not worry over much about that, however. What is of transcendent concern for Britain and the European project is that the appointment of such a traditional figure as Mr Juncker will show a breathtaking contempt for the voters, and prove that the “European elite” really is deaf to the voices and aspirations of its 500 million people.
The European elections, not least in Germany itself, showed the impatience and frustration of many of the continent’s citizens – with national governments, yes, but also with what Europe means, or doesn’t mean, to them. The European Union has failed in recent years to secure what it did so dramatically in its first decades – rapid economic growth, jobs and prosperity across the continent. Europe has become hopelessly uncompetitive by global standards; its labour market is sclerotic; the single currency has brought ruin to its poorer members; and, ironically enough, national interests have prevented the EU from signing up for the Doha world trade agreement. It is a mess: Mr Cameron is not the only one to doubt whether Mr Juncker is the right man to sort it out.