Learning Through Suffering: European Lessons for the British Government

A Personal View from Brendan Donnelly, 1st July 2014

A number of lessons can be learned from the diplomatic reverse suffered by the British government in its attempts to prevent Mr. Juncker from becoming President of the European Commission.

1. British governments are prone grossly to exaggerate the extent of support they enjoy for their political attitudes and choices within the European Union. In this respect, Mr. Cameron’s attempt to thwart Mr. Juncker’s candidature was entirely similar to his unsuccessful attempt to prevent the adoption of the Fiscal Compact in 2011. British diplomats and politicians are altogether too willing to interpret vague expressions of goodwill from their European colleagues as firm endorsement of idiosyncratic British views about the Union and its future. This over-interpretation of what is often little more than conventional politeness leads British officials and politicians to misperception of the real alignment of forces within the Union and unseemly petulance toward their colleagues when this misperception is later revealed in its full futility.

2.There are considerable limits upon the help that Mrs. Merkel can and will wish to give to Mr. Cameron in his campaign  to “renegotiate” the terms of British membership of the European Union. When she attempted to help Mr. Cameron in his opposition to Mr. Juncker by refusing initially to back the latter as President of the Commission, it provoked a violent reaction from German public and political opinion. Mrs. Merkel moved quickly to remedy her error and is unlikely to risk making a similar mistake in future.  There are wide strata of German opinion disinclined to help Mr. Cameron in what they regard as his self-imposed problem of redefining Britain’s role within the European Union. They will not allow Mrs. Merkel a free hand on this issue. She in her turn will be unwilling to provoke avoidable domestic disquiet by being seen to help the British “renegotiation” with excessive generosity.

3. The British government regularly underestimates the power and effectiveness of European institutions, particularly the European Parliament. The Lisbon Treaty changed substantially the relative roles of the European Council and the European Parliament in the choice of the European Commission President. For many months, the European Parliament had made clear that it had specific ideas about the way in which it would exercise the new powers given to it. These ideas were not taken as seriously by the British (and other) governments as they should have been. The rapid agreement between the major political groups of the new Parliament to support Mr. Juncker as candidate for the Presidency of the Commission clearly caught the European Council unprepared. From the beginning, Mr. Juncker anyway enjoyed considerable support within the Council, and no credible candidate was ever produced to stand against him. At the end of the process, the British government was reduced to the implausible role of (almost) lone defender of the rights of the insouciant rest of the European Council against an insurgent European Parliament.  British ministers have done little to improve their standing or credibility with their European colleagues by the accusations of “betrayal” and “cowardice” which they have since seen fit to cast at other members of the European Council.

4. The present British government, like many of its predecessors, ceases to be capable of rational political analysis when the term “federalism” enters the European debate. The term is of course a notoriously slippery one, with both its advocates and critics often disagreeing about its precise significance. Mr. Juncker is indeed an enthusiastic proponent of the process of European integration, based on the European institutions, and as such might well be described as a “federalist.” But it is simply grotesque to imagine that an individual’s enthusiasm for European integration should be a disqualification for being President of the European Commission, or that his personal views would make it impossible for him to work effectively with those less enthusiastic about the principle and practice of this integration. Belatedly, Mr. Cameron now seems to be coming to this recognition, speaking of the possibility of “doing business” with Mr. Juncker. Ironically, it is not in any case with Mr. Juncker that a Conservative government after 2017 will primarily conduct its “renegotiation” of British membership of the European Union, but with the other member states of the Union.  Mr. Cameron’s desire to pursue his ideological campaign against the heresy of federalism has betrayed him into fighting and losing a subsidiary battle, with ever greater commitment of political resources as the prospects of victory receded.

5. The influence of the British government within the European Union is today at a remarkably low ebb. Far from enhancing British influence, as some in the United Kingdom have argued, threats of withdrawal from the Union have simply undermined the credibility of Mr. Cameron and his ministers. European colleagues have become increasingly disinclined to engage in significant compromises with a United Kingdom that may no longer be a member of the Union in two years time.  That all its supposed allies, except Hungary, should be willing to vote against the United Kingdom on a matter to which the British government had attached such importance, is a crushing verdict on the current standing of the United Kingdom in Brussels. Interestingly, there is still willingness from Britain’s partners to meet what are seen as legitimate, if not widely shared, British concerns about the pace and nature of European integration. It might be that Mr. Cameron would receive a more sympathetic reception if he were to concentrate on seeking to obtain new specific arrangements for the United Kingdom within the European Union, rather than aspiring, in a fashion seen as arrogant and unrealistic, simply to reconstruct the Union in such a way that Britain would feel happier in it, irrespective of the feelings and priorities of others.

6. The Prime Minister has remarked that Mr. Juncker’s election as President of the European Commission may make more difficult the winning of a referendum to ensure continuing British membership of the European Union. It would be more accurate to say that the way in which he has conducted his opposition to Mr. Juncker has made the winning of any such referendum more difficult. To present Mr. Juncker’s candidature as a matter of high political principle, in which Mr. Cameron heroically but unsuccessfully stood alone against the forces of federalism and centralization, cannot but contribute to British feelings of alienation and separateness from the rest of Europe, which could easily be decisive in a future referendum’s opting for Britain to leave the European Union. There may well be over the coming year other European issues on which Mr. Cameron feels inclined to strike divisive postures. If he does, he should be aware that in doing so he will be making even more toxic the atmosphere in which will be held any referendum that a reelected Conservative Party decides to hold in the first half of the new Parliament.

It would be encouraging to believe that some or all of the above lessons will be taken to heart and shape future British European policy. Given the internal configuration of the present British political system, such a belief would be more a matter of hope than of expectation.