BERLIN – British Prime Minister David Cameron has sustained what looks like his biggest political defeat. Knowing he was destined to lose, he forced a vote among European leaders on whether Jean-Claude Juncker should lead the European Commission. He lost 26-2, with only Hungary’s Viktor Orban backing him.
Juncker is not the right man for the job, but the vote is a bigger disaster than his election. It almost makes another Cameron defeat — in the U.K. parliamentary election of May 2015 — necessary to keep the EU together.
Cameron can’t be faulted for not fighting Juncker hard enough. He did all he could, insisting that the Luxembourger was an old-style federalist unable to reform the EU and that picking Europe’s de-facto prime minister was the prerogative of national leaders, not European Parliament factions, the biggest of which sponsored Juncker.
Some of Cameron’s allies in the U.K. even tried character assassination: earlier this month, The Times, which generally supports the prime minister and his party, published an account of a Luxembourgian intelligence operative recalling a 2007 meeting with Juncker, during which the politician was allegedly “dead drunk” and spewing obscenities. A week ago, the tabloid Daily Mail added more drunkenness allegations.
Nothing worked. To German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Juncker’s election was a matter of political inevitability: Her party is a member of the European Parliament faction that promoted Juncker. Other leaders, however, could have sided with Cameron, but chose not to do that, and in the most humiliating, public way possible. They picked a chain-smoking, cognac-loving eurocrat from a tiny country, who likes to make a buck speaking at conventions, over the forceful objections of the leader of a country that is the fourth-biggest contributor to the EU budget. In other words, they picked Juncker over Cameron.
An Englishman knows when he’s being snubbed. As Cameron told his colleagues, they could “live to regret the new process for choosing the Commission president.”
Some of the EU leaders were apparently irritated by his lecturing. “I think in the U.K. some people really seriously need to wake up and smell the coffee,” Finnish leader Alexander Stubb, normally sympathetic to Cameron’s business-oriented stand on EU matters, said after the vote. “The EU is a very good thing for the U.K. Over 50 percent of the trade of the U.K. goes to the EU.”
Cameron knows that: He is generally pro-EU. He is, however, being dragged into his own whirlpool of inevitability, just as Merkel was on Juncker. He has promised the U.K. an EU-secession referendum in 2017 if his party wins the next election. The coalition of Cameron’s Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is ahead in the polls. Cameron’s anti-Juncker stand is polling well, too, and so is secession.
If Cameron wants the U.K. to stay in the EU — and there are lots of good reasons for that — it’s almost as if he needs to lose to his Labor opponent, Ed Miliband. He hasn’t promised a secession vote or painted himself into a corner with the other EU leaders. He will have better chances of negotiating some kind of compromise that might both keep the U.K. in the European project and pacify British voters.
Barring a Milliband victory, the U.K. and the EU may well part ways simply because that’s the way the tide is going. Like Juncker’s selection, it’s beginning to look like predestination.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Berlin-based writer for Bloomberg View.