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Deft diplomacy, please

16 June 2014 By Hugo Dixon

David Cameron’s cack-handed European diplomacy risks leading Britain out of the European Union.

The latest example is the way the UK prime minister has mishandled his campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker becoming president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Cameron is right to try to block the former Luxembourg prime minister’s candidacy – both because Juncker is not the right person to reform the EU and because the way he is being promoted constitutes a power grab by the European Parliament. But the British prime minister’s tactics have actually made a Juncker presidency more likely.

If Cameron loses this particular battle, the chances of a Brexit – Britain’s exit from the EU – will shoot up. This is partly because Juncker himself will presumably not want to help the British prime minister with his plan to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. And if Cameron can’t secure many goodies from his renegotiation scheme, he won’t have much to show the electorate in a referendum he plans to hold on Britain’s membership in 2017. (This will only happen if he is still prime minister then, which is far from certain since there is a general election in 2015).

Cameron’s campaign against Juncker has lost Britain friends and allies inside the EU. The most important is Germany’s Angela Merkel, who was initially lukewarm about the Luxembourger. But after Cameron was perceived by the German media to have threatened to pull Britain out of the EU if Juncker wasn’t blocked, she had to rally round his candidacy. She even gave Britain’s prime minister a thinly-veiled ticking-off last week, saying threats were not part of the “European spirit.”

Other Europeans, too, are becoming exasperated about Britain. One former French prime minister, Michel Rocard, told the UK last week to quit the EU before it caused more damage. That’s an extreme position, but it shows Cameron’s diplomacy has backfired.

If Juncker is chosen, there’s also a risk that Britain’s prime minister will come under pressure from eurosceptics in his own party to bring forward the planned referendum to, say, 2016. He would then have less time to secure any new deal for Britain with the EU – reducing the chance of securing an “In” vote. No wonder eurosceptics want as early a plebiscite as possible.

Although Cameron hasn’t said clearly how he would vote in a referendum, the mood music is that he wants to keep Britain in the EU. But, if Juncker becomes president, there is an outside risk that Cameron will campaign to pull Britain out of the EU – particularly if he thought that was the best way to make sure he was on the winning side, stayed prime minister and stopped his Conservative party tearing itself apart.

Cameron’s terrible diplomacy vis-à-vis Juncker is, unfortunately, not an isolated phenomenon. He has made several missteps in his relationship with the EU.

The first was a promise to pull the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party (EPP), the dominant centre-right bloc in the European Parliament, when he was running for its leadership back in 2005. That sop to Tory eurosceptics may ultimately have helped Cameron become prime minister. But it has caused collateral damage.

For a start, it irritated Merkel, whose CDU is part of the EPP. Then it meant a loss of influence for Britain in the European Parliament just as it was getting more power. Cameron wasn’t even party to the decision to choose Juncker as the EPP’s “Spitzenkandidat,” or frontrunner, in May’s elections.

What’s more, the British prime minister has got into a frightful twist with his own bloc, the European Conservatives and Reformists. Last week the ECR voted to admit Germany’s anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland party into the group. Cameron, who knew this would be unpopular with Merkel, was reduced to saying the Conservatives only needed one “sister party” in Germany, her CDU. Why then did he pull out of the EPP in the first place?

Yet another misstep was the British prime minister’s attempt in 2011 to veto a change in the EU’s treaties designed to shore up the euro zone in the midst of its crisis. Cameron thought he could secure a series of benefits for Britain in return for his support. His partners saw this as blackmail in their time of greatest need and just sidestepped his veto by agreeing a totally new treaty. In the process, Britain wasted diplomatic capital.

The battle to keep Britain in the EU is far from lost. Cameron may yet stop Juncker. The best hope is probably that the process of choosing an EU president drags on until after the summer holidays and, in the meantime, other countries join the UK in opposing the Luxembourger.

Then, of course, there is the chance – put by betting houses at around 50 percent – that Cameron will not be reelected as prime minister in next year’s general election. He would then be unable to carry out his promise to call an In/Out referendum. This would slash the risk of a quick Brexit, as opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband doesn’t want a plebiscite.

The snag is that the issue won’t have disappeared. In such a scenario, a more eurosceptic politician will probably replace Cameron as Tory leader. He or she may then agree an electoral pact with the UK Independence Party to fight the 2020 general election on a platform of pulling Britain out of the EU.

It would be better if Cameron could become a defter diplomat. The worry is that he doesn’t have it in him.



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