David Cameron looks powerless on Europe. Can he salvage anything from Juncker-gate?

The stand-off has presented Britain, not for the first time, against almost everyone else

Mary Dejevsky@IndyVoices
Friday 20 June 2014 09:07
David Cameron walks past Jose Manuel Barroso, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel during at last night's summit in Brussels
David Cameron walks past Jose Manuel Barroso, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel during at last night's summit in Brussels

There comes a point in any stand-off where the likely loser is well advised to give in gracefully or risk a defeat even more humiliating than the one already at the door. Maybe, in his efforts to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming the next head of the European Commission, David Cameron believes that this point has not yet arrived. Or perhaps he judges that it is so far in the past that he has nothing more to lose.

Certainly, he sounded unabashed at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, when he insisted in no uncertain terms that his fight would go on. And there was something almost admirable about his blunt tenacity. Yet it becomes ever harder to believe that he can win.

I have done my utmost to divine some far-sighted stratagem behind his continued pursuit of this quarrel, some hint that he has secured some undertaking from someone that will, in the end, make it all worthwhile. And maybe Christine Lagarde will sail in to the Port of London, Venus-like, on a giant shell, to save the day. But it looks less and less likely.

With the German Chancellor apparently keen on an early decision – and the only early decision possible being the nomination of the stolid Luxembourger – the prospect has to be for a Cameron defeat at next week’s EU summit. That the first day of the meeting is at Ypres of all places, commemorating the dead of the First World War, only makes the whole scenario worse.

It was, though, pretty bad already. A chain of mistakes on Europe has left the UK and its Prime Minister looking powerless. The first was Cameron’s promise, when still in opposition, to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP. Not only has this decision given Tory MEPs some unsavoury bedfellows in Brussels, it has left the UK with no say in who the EPP’s nominee for the top job should be.

Once upon a time there might have been an advantage in standing to one side. Not now. Before the recent European elections, an understanding was reached in Brussels according to which the leader of the biggest Parliamentary grouping would be given the nod for the presidency of the European Commission. The plan was to make the decision look more democratic than the usual cobbled-together deal between national leaders behind closed doors.

The new arrangement was designed to boost the role of MEPs, and the voters who elected them; in other words, to add a bit more democracy. To that end, the leaders of the main groupings campaigned around Europe, and debated, a little in the manner of US presidential candidates.

We didn’t see much of this in Britain, because the leaders were not invited to speak here and the TV debate was only on the Parliament channel. It is easy to argue that neither Juncker, nor his centre-left rival, Martin Schulz, are household names – not just here, but elsewhere in Europe – but the plan was to create a more direct connection between the vote and the next head of the European Commission.

It wasn’t as stupid an idea as it is sometimes presented to be. But it diminished what national leaders, including Cameron, had regarded as their prerogative: the horse-trading that had produced the nominee for Commission president in the past. The result is the stand-off that has pitted Britain, not for the first time, against almost everyone else, but also exposed different ideas about where power in the EU should lie. Do elected national leaders have a better claim to be the democratic representatives of their people than elected members of the European Parliament? Angela Merkel has seemed at times in the past few weeks to waver. This is one reason why everything has been as messy and as inconclusive – so far – as it has.

The only sense I have heard on this recently came courtesy of Sir John Major – an increasingly valuable elder statesman and a scarred veteran of Conservative Europe battles. He said that Cameron had been right to oppose Jean-Claude Juncker, because the EU needed reform and Juncker was not a reformer. Well, you never actually know that until the person has the job, but let’s give Sir John the benefit of the doubt because of what he said next. In essence, he suggested that if, as appeared inevitable, Cameron lost his battle, Merkel and others might be willing to offer some compensation, and this is what he should play for.

Let’s see. You could argue – and Cameron might argue this in mitigation – that the more Britain gets other Europeans’ backs up (as it has over Juncker), the less aggro he will get from Tory Eurosceptics at home. That may be true, but it does not solve the problem. Cameron fought a highly personalised battle that left him with no dignified way out. He resorted to what Merkel saw as threats that a UK exit would be more likely if he did not get his way. Such is the ill-feeling around Europe that he will be lucky to come away with even the “John Major option”.

Labour hears the call – and Harman’s the one to answer

Where Nick and Boris have gone before, now Harriet is daring to tread. And not before time. The absence of Labour from LBC radio’s political phone-in line-up was threatening to become an embarrassment, even as the campaign for next year’s election starts to get serious.

The choice of who to nominate for the slot is not as simple as it might look. No party can risk letting just any politician sign up to answer sometimes dangerous questions from the Great British public. And – say what you like about Nick Clegg – as the pioneer of the genre, he has actually set the bar quite high. He has, mostly, avoided gaffes. He has a personable radio manner, and he has shown a smidgeon of a popular touch (that “onesie” is, presumably, still in its box).

The politician has to be senior enough to carry authority, but also just that bit removed from ministerial power – in case something goes wrong. Deputy Prime Minister is perfect, as other ministers can claim or disclaim what he says, as they wish. Mayor of London isn’t bad. Deputy leader of the Labour Party is also about right, and a bit of name recognition doesn’t go amiss. I see only two possible downsides: I’m not convinced that LBC’s new recruit is yet fluent enough in human, as opposed to Labour-ese; and, before long, someone is going to refer to her, accidentally, as Harperson.

Not a Scotch egg

Does the Waitrose supermarket chain know something the rest of us don’t know? Last weekend I spotted a bag of what looked like Scotch eggs, which were labelled “picnic eggs”. That very morning, as it happened, I had read a newspaper article about whisky being distilled in the Lake District. Could it be that Scotland is already being written out of the script?

I wait hungrily to find out how Scotch pancakes will be rebranded - mini-crepes, anyone? But it is surely no coincidence that Welsh cakes have been introduced by Marks & Spencer. They’re somewhat different, but maybe they’re being tried out as a replacement. As for shortbread, we will perhaps have to learn to bake our own. And do let me know, if you live or drive near Scotch Corner, when the signs have been painted over to read English Corner instead.

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