While many might find a comparison with England’s star striker flattering, for David Cameron it was less so.
In my experience British students of politics have tended to find the EU one of the less exciting areas. However, recent events have surely conspired to disabuse them of this. The great global banking crisis saw countries in the eurozone in meltdown and needing rescue packages (or bail-outs) only to see their citizens railing against austerity measures proposed by their rescuers. With the euro itself in jeopardy, events hung in large measure on the actions of Germany which, to the chagrin of some, emerged as the dominant member of the community. Beyond the financial turmoil there was tension arising from Russia’s effective annexation of Crimea, resulting from Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s decision to turn away from closer ties with the EU. Moreover, following the dramatic enlargement of the community, the right of EU citizens to cross national boarders to seek work provoked social unrest, and a rise of far right parties. The barometer of popular sentiment came starkly to the attention of national leaders in the May 2014 European elections, when Eurosceptic and far-right parties secured victories in EU states, including France (where the Front National made extensive gains), Denmark and of course the UK.
In the UK, while MI6 feared the march of radicalised British-born Muslims returning from the Middle East, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader, Nigel Farage, was able to capitalise on a widespread fear of plumbers and painters and decorators marching from Poland seeking work (and, in the eyes of critics, benefits and access to the NHS). British viewers were treated to some lively exchanges when Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg subjected himself to two bruising TV encounters with the charismatic UKIP leader. Opinion poll ratings were confirmed when the Eurosceptic party raised its total of 13 MEPs to 24, leaving it ahead of both main rivals, with the Lib Dem (perhaps luckily!) retaining only one.
In the new parliament the centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP), with 211 seats, was the largest grouping (ahead of the Socialists on 193, followed by the Liberals on 74, Greens on 58 and the far-left group on 47). This was to prove more significant than might have been expected.
Choosing the President of the Commission
The position of President of the European Commission is one of immense importance in the operation of the EU and for its future development. In the past it has been held by some highly influential figures, including the charismatic Jacques Delors, who oversaw the enactment of the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht and enraged Margaret Thatcher with his social agenda.
The choice of the President thus becomes a crucial matter. The front-runner to emerge for this position in 2014 was Jean-Claude Juncker, leader of the EPP grouping in the European Parliament and one-time prime minister of Luxembourg. Yet in the eyes of many pundits and national politicians he was the candidate no one wanted at such a pivotal time in the development of the EU. A confirmed federalist, he was architect of the highly integrationalist European currency based on the euro. This at a time when many accepted that the Community was in danger of ‘sleepwalking’ into the form of a superstate. Foremost amongst those expressing reservations was British prime minister David Cameron, driven by a strong and increasingly vocal Eurosceptic element within his own party and faced with the relentless rise of UKIP. The UK has for long had a troubled relationship with the European community. Not for nothing has it been branded the awkward partner (see chapter 6) and Cameron was soon to be seen as more awkward than ever. Initially he appeared to have support from a number of other leaders, even including the outgoing Commission President, José Manuel Barroso. In embarking upon his campaign Cameron might have remembered the way in which John Major had been able to block the appointment of Jean-Luc Dehaene for the position in 1994 (see p. 174). However, Cameron’s efforts resulted in decisive rejection when, in June 2014, his fellow European leaders in the European Council chose to nominate Juncker by 26 votes to two. Only Hungary stood by the beleaguered UK prime minister. In the eyes of the Labour opposition this was a ‘humiliating defeat’ for a prime minister who had become ‘toxic’ in Europe. Even more cruelly the German media combined ridicule of both the PM and the English football team (just ejected from the World Cup in Brazil) by linking Cameron and England’s striker Wayne Rooney, saying: ‘He lines up, he loses, he goes home’. Indeed, some wags noted that even Rooney had never been in a side beaten 26-2!
While Labour shared the view that Juncker, as a committed federalist, was not the man for this key role, they criticised the tactics of the prime minister, comparing his approach unfavourably with the adroit way in which Tony Blair could achieve his ends by winning friends and influencing people. Cameron had appeared to lose both friends and influence as he sought to demonise the mild-mannered Juncker and then went on to issue a threat that Juncker’s nomination would make a UK exit from the EU more likely. So why was the self-effacing John Major able to succeed where his more strident successor failed?
So what went wrong?
In achieving his end Major did not need the arts of guile, charm or secret dealing in rooms which, in 1994, might have been smoke filled. All he needed to do was express his opposition and the veto did the rest. And the decision of the national leaders was final.
However, the controversial European Reform Treaty (Lisbon), coming into force in 2009, changed the rules of the game (see pp. 151–3). It aimed to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU by giving more power to the Parliament, the EU’s only directly elected institution. The move promised to dilute the power of the national leaders in the appointment process of the President of the Commission. Under the Treaty, the European Council proposes a candidate for approval by the Parliament. However, the national leaders must take into account the results of European elections. In other words, they must choose a candidate whom they expect will have the support of the Parliament. In this way the candidate is effectively elected by the Parliament. Leading parliamentary figures were quick to recognise the great potential in this, one that was perhaps not fully recognised by the national leaders.
The reform opened the way for the pan-European groupings to fight the Euro elections with their own proposed candidates for the post. This they did at the time of the May 2014 European elections. The first move came from Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat, and Speaker of the Parliament. He gained the support of the centre-left leaders (although not the British Labour Party) to become their candidate. Others, including the Greens and hard left then began to follow with their own nominations.
The initiative of Shultz forced Angela Merkel into action. In the same way as for Cameron, there were domestic implications in European developments. A Social Democrat in the position of Commission President would endanger her economic austerity package designed to deal with the euro crisis.
In the Parliament the largest grouping was the EPP, and its candidate was its leader, Jean-Claude Juncker. Merkel’s Christian Democrats were the largest party in the EPP grouping and, while not really welcoming the nomination of Juncker, she offered her support and lobbied other centre right leaders to do the same. Hence the final score of 26-2. Juncker was expected to gain the approval of the Parliament on 16 July, with his centre-right bloc and the main centre-left Socialists and Democrats promising support.
What bearing do these events have on the UK? For the student of politics the prospects look intriguing, although perhaps alarming for businesses and the economy. Juncker is widely regarded as the wrong choice at the wrong time. Perhaps the Lisbon method will be considered too dangerous, but can this ‘Eurogenie’ be put back in the bottle? David Cameron was quick to offer congratulations to Juncker and to note that one can lose a battle without losing the war. The surge of UKIP and the prospect of an in–out referendum in the next parliament promises much interest (in the Chinese sense) i. But Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb may have spoken for many in Europe when he declared that in the UK ‘some people obviously need to wake up and smell the coffee. The European Union is a very good thing for the United Kingdom.’
You might like to read the lively Commons debate, as reported in Hansard, when the Prime Minister returned from the European summit to face his domestic opponents.