Far from a humiliation, David Cameron’s failure to prevent the election of Jean-Claude Juncker may have been a Machiavellian master stroke, writes Allan Massie
David Cameron has had a bad few days. In this Wimbledon fortnight, he’s like a tennis player who has just had his serve broken twice. Still, as a tennis fan himself, he’ll surely reflect that the fifth and deciding set is still to come – and Ed Miliband isn’t in great shape himself.
Having his former director of communications, Andy Coulson, found guilty of some charges in the phone-hacking case is undeniably bad news. Cameron was evidently guilty of poor judgment when he took Mr Coulson on board. Several people told him it was a bad idea, but he thought he knew better. So he was satisfied with the assurances Coulson gave him. This may have been unwise, but it is not dishonourable to take a man at his word.
In any case, most of the Coulson damage has already been done during the Leveson Inquiry, and Coulson had already resigned before then. It would have been far worse for the Prime Minister if his friend Rebekah Brooks had been found guilty. But she was acquitted, cleared of all charges. Big sigh of relief in Downing Street.
Of course, Labour will make much during next year’s election campaign of Mr Cameron having “brought a criminal into Downing Street”. But, first, it will be stale news by then, and, second, Coulson wasn’t a criminal when he was recruited. The presumption of innocence is a central and necessary principle of our law, and, properly speaking, you are a criminal only when a court has brought in a guilty verdict.
Mr Cameron’s failure to prevent the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission is, at first sight, far more damaging. It may be regarded as humiliating, for he had made a big play of it, and lost heavily. Certainly, if he really wanted to stall Mr Juncker’s election, he went about it with singular ineptitude. He placed all his cards on the table, and didn’t take a single trick. Eventually his only supporter was the very Eurosceptical prime minister of Hungary. Mr Cameron went out on a limb, making a great deal of noise and issuing threats. This is not the way to win friends and influence people. The way he approached it – even apparently encouraging sections of the British press to portray Mr Juncker as not only a dyed-in-the-wool Euro-federalist, but a cognac at breakfast alcoholic – made his appointment almost certain.
In any case, approval had been given by the two biggest groups on the European Parliament – the Socialists and the Christian Democrats and their allies. So Mr Cameron was on a loser, and probably would have been even if he had quietly constructed an anti-Juncker alliance.
This is the obvious way to look at it. And yet if you consider what the Prime Minister wants, which is a reform of the way the EU operates and the return of some powers to the nation-states, the obvious conclusion may be mistaken. Machiavelli might even have nodded approval for Mr Cameron’s tactics.
First, consider Mr Juncker himself. Whatever his reputation as a Euro-federalist, he can’t fail to be aware that there is a strong tide running against the ever-closer union. Several of those who voted for him are nevertheless eager for reform – even if they don’t all agree as to the precise nature of the reforms needed. So, if he wants to make his presidency a success, he can’t ignore this tide or prevailing wind. It’s quite possible that his presidency will be a case of, in Disraeli’s phrase, Tory men and Whig measures. Reform may be best effected by a firm believer in the EU who is made to realise that it must adapt if it is to hold together.
Second, one can easily exaggerate the importance of the president of the Commission. The Commission is the EU’s civil service, but decisions about treaty revisions – which is what Mr Cameron is seeking – are made by the Council of Ministers, the elected leaders of all member-states. So, if Mr Juncker doesn’t accept the need for reform (which I think he will), he is likely to find himself by-passed.
Third, Mr Cameron’s warning that the appointment of Mr Juncker would make a British exit from the EU more likely may have seemed at first a petulant bluff, but already is being recognised as a wake-up call.
Germany at least has got the message. The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, one of Angela Merkel’s closest associates, has come out publicly saying that the EU needs the United Kingdom, and that British withdrawal would be disastrous. His message is that the EU must not only be reformed, but reformed in such a way as to satisfy Britain and ensure that Mr Cameron obtains terms which he can present to the British electorate as a cogent reason to vote for staying in when there is an in-out referendum.
Accordingly, it looks as if Germany is ready to embark and set sail in the good ship “Reform”, ready indeed to back reforms sufficiently sweeping to sink Britain’s Eurosceptics. And if Germany is on board, others will unquestionably follow. Some states – the Netherlands, for instance – will do so eagerly.
In short, Mr Cameron has demonstrated his seriousness by putting the election of Mr Juncker to a vote, and out of what is at first sight a humiliating defeat, may actually have prepared the ground for victory.
Of course, debate over the nature of the reforms he seeks will be fierce – all the more so because even those who now recognise that some reform is desirable, don’t necessarily agree as to just what is necessary. Nevertheless, Mr Cameron has set the ball rolling. The problem now is to keep possession of it (something the England football team sadly failed to do in Brazil). And of course he has another problem: winning next year’s general election.
One can only say that he seems to have marginally improved his prospects of doing so than would have been the case if he had supinely nodded Mr Juncker’s election through.