The current spat over choosing the next president of the European Commission is not the first time that David Cameron has picked the wrong battle to fight on Europe — and in the process damaged Britain’s influence and his own. Worse still, these serial miscalculations are a frightening foreshadowing of how things are likely to go if Britain retreats further from its formerly influential position in the European Union.
His first big mistake, dating back to 2009, is now coming home to roost. That was his decision to break the links between the British Conservatives and their mainstream centre-right counterparts across Europe, who group together inside the European People’s Party. This left him without any influence over the centre-right’s choice of their candidate for Commission president — and they ended up settling on Mr Juncker.
It also meant that he was forced to assemble a new group on the margins of the European Parliament in order to find a home for his Conservative MEPs. Not only did this severely reduce the Tories’ influence, it also created a fragile alliance over which he now has no control. In recent days, the group has embarked on embarrassing new alliances in the European Parliament that Cameron himself was keen to avoid, such as their acceptance of the German AfD, the True Finns and the Danish People’s party. Being forced to ally himself with these small parties has already begun to alienate the mainstream allies, such as Angela Merkel, on whom Cameron is counting for his mooted EU reforms.
Cameron’s second big mistake was his so-called “veto” of the so-called fiscal compact in December 2011. The Eurozone countries wanted to organise closer economic coordination and fiscal discipline among themselves — something that would not include Britain, or any other non-eurozone country that didn’t want to take part. Yet Cameron refused to allow this in the EU context. Of course, this was not so much a veto as a sulk. The result was that the other countries simply agreed a treaty among themselves; Britain was no longer a party to the negotiations, had far less influence on the content, and had essentially given up its genuine veto by refusing to take its seat at the table.
A measure of the futility of this position is that all the other non-eurozone countries joined the treaty of their own volition, leaving the UK isolated in a minority of one. And, of course, the ease with which Cameron was outmanoeuvred has made our European neighbours acutely aware that making progress without including Britain is perfectly possible — and may be necessary.
A third example of Cameron wrongfooting himself was his strategy of trying to out-UKIP UKIP by promising to renegotiate the European Union and then hold a referendum on membership. The strategy has predictably failed in both of its objectives: it has not reunited his party, which remains as divided as ever on Europe, and it has not seen off UKIP, whose credibility has been massively bolstered by Cameron’s antics. Worse still, it has lessened British influence in Europe — as others question why it’s worth negotiating with a country that may leave — and it potentially damages inward investment into Britain.
And this brings us up-to-date with Cameron’s latest tactical error: his current vehement opposition to Mr Juncker as a prospective president of the Commission. There is a qualified majority in the European Council in favour of nominating him — he was chosen as the EPP candidate by Merkel, Rajoy, Enda Kenny and other centre-right prime ministers. Cameron’s tantrum over this process has seriously annoyed the very people who ought to be, politically, his closest friends and allies. It was a serious miscalculation in that Mr Juncker represents the very part of the political spectrum which which Cameron needs to cut a deal if he is to have any chance of delivering the sort of changes he claims to seek in Europe.
From his perspective, it would have been far more sensible to do a deal with Mr Juncker: we will accept your nomination if you accept that certain reforms are necessary and to look at our proposals seriously. Instead, blind opposition has served no purpose whatsoever.
There are other examples. But these four already place a big question mark over Cameron’s judgement when it comes to Europe. Repeated unconstructive posturing, trying to please your right-wing eurosceptic backbenchers, is not a sensible long-term strategy for constructive relations with neighbouring countries. And the fact that this posturing has failed at every turn, resulting in less influence for Britain and less chance of Cameron achieving his avowed objectives, is a frightening foreshadowing of what lies in store if we were to continue to allow eurosceptics to edge us towards EU exit and European isolation.