British Prime Minister David Cameron left himself little room for maneuver when he denounced the nomination of former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. Calling the move “a serious mistake” and “a bad day for Europe,” Cameron went down swinging in an unmistakable defeat, losing on a voice vote 26-2.
The problem now for Cameron is reconstructing a relationship not only with Juncker, but with other European heads of state and the British public after lashing the former so publicly and being humiliated in the eyes of the latter by the vote.
While most of the attention in the European parliamentary elections held in May focused on the gains made by anti-EU parties, in fact Europe’s center-right won the largest bloc of seats. The latter had agreed to put Juncker forward as their candidate to head the European Commission, the most powerful organ in Brussels, which drafts European Union laws, oversees national budgets, enforces treaties and negotiates international trade agreements.
Cameron objected to that move on two grounds. First, he argued that Juncker — whom he labeled a “career insider” — backed closer political union and that such an approach at a time of seemingly deepening hostility to the European project among voters would only further erode support for the union.
At a minimum, he feared that Juncker’s integrationist instincts would block the reforms that are needed to give member governments more freedom of movement within the union, a move that would undercut complaints about Brussels’ mandate and growing power.
Cameron’s second complaint was about the way in which Juncker was selected. Traditionally the president of the commission is selected by the European leaders themselves, acting through the European Council and in accordance with unanimous votes.
This process gives them more say over positions and permits horse-trading among them to protect their interests. The idea that European parliamentarians themselves would select their head is anathema to those national governments.
Cameron thought he was not alone in these sentiments, especially the second of his two complaints.
While views of the relative merits of integration and especially the tactics that would best protect the union vary, most European leaders seek to preserve as much of their power as possible, especially when it comes to the European Commission portfolios, which have significant impact on national interests and affects national politics.
Moreover, Cameron apparently believed that he had reached a meeting of the minds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to oppose Juncker. Others said that the German leader had merely agreed to hold a vote if there was no consensus. Apparently, however, there was consensus behind Juncker and Cameron’s call for a vote identified not a split but rather his own isolation. The only other leader who joined Cameron in rejecting Juncker was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
While there is concern about how Juncker has been picked — Merkel has agreed to a review of the nomination process after the new commission is in place — there is greater concern about the process being perceived as flouting the will of European voters.
After his nomination as the candidate to become commission president, Juncker still needs the European Parliament’s support during a plenary session, to be held Tuesday, before taking up the post. He may not command majority support in the European Parliament, but no other figure seems to come close to challenging him.
To his credit, Juncker is committed to European integration and has a record of consensus building. New EU rules require paying attention to election results when picking a European Commission head. And a decision by Europe’s national leaders to ignore the election results in which 250 million ballots were cast would delegitimize the entire election process, a potentially dangerous misstep given the complaints about Europe’s “democracy deficit.”
In truth, many of the leaders who voted for Juncker have their doubts. Merkel has said that Europe is “ready to address British concerns” about the future direction of the union. But the damage to Cameron may well have been done.
Domestically Cameron looks either ineffectual — unable to persuade fellow heads of state to follow his lead or to protect British interests — or petulant.
The Labour party, which also opposed Juncker, called it a “humiliating defeat.” Rather than defending British interests, they argue, Cameron’s stubborn campaign has isolated him among EU leaders, making him look even weaker. Such a standing matters because Cameron wants to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership in the EU; London wants to reclaim the powers it has ceded to the EU. The results of that negotiation will be crucial to the national referendum, scheduled for 2017, in which the United Kingdom will vote up or down on whether to remain a member of the union.
Anti-Europe groups in Britain have been strengthened. Apparently London has little say over decisions in Brussels. But more astute observers see Cameron’s isolation as the result of a series of missteps, not least of which was the Conservative Party’s withdrawal from the European People’s Party, which Juncker now heads. That minimized British leverage within European negotiations and left Cameron at the mercy of his relationships with European leaders.
Cameron may claim he is merely protecting British interests, but he appears to be doing so at Europe’s expense. He needs more than an anti-European agenda. Having conceded the loss of this battle and promised to work with the Commission president, Cameron must now rebuild bridges — always important to island nations.