David Cameron may well come to be remembered as one of the most inept political leaders in modern UK history. He failed to lead the Tories to victory in the last election against an exhausted and deeply unpopular Labour Party; his foolish attempt to take the country to war in Syria collapsed for lack of support even in his own party; his decision to bring Coulson into Downing Street demonstrated an abject lack of judgement; and his recent defeat over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker shows him to be politically naive and a very poor negotiator.
The Juncker defeat is particularly damaging not just to Cameron but to the country over which he currently presides. It shows the degree to which the Prime Minister fails to comprehend the forces at work in the EU, particularly in the largest countries - of which Germany is first among equals.
One of the most widespread complaints about the EU is its lack of democratic accountability. Undoubtedly, the current decision-making structure is messy. Parliament and the European Council readily find themselves at loggerheads, leaving a powerful bureaucracy - the European Commission - in the middle. When the EU parliament chose Juncker as its candidate for President of the Commission, it was usurping a responsibility traditionally reserved for national leaders in the European Council where critical decisions come as the result of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors. Despite the fact that the parliament is democratically elected, even a stalwart of respectability like The Guardian suddenly discovered that, notwithstanding the transparency of the process, the selection of Juncker was undemocratic: “it is absurd,” exclaims an editorial of June 25, “for the MEPs to claim to speak for the popular will when the results in so many countries rejected the very integrationism that Mr Juncker embodies…”
It is the Guardian’s indignation that is absurd. MEPs don’t claim to speak for the popular will any more misleadingly than Cameron’s Tories when they opted to reorganise and partly privatise the NHS having promised before the last UK general election not to do so. No UK party currently has an outright parliamentary majority, but Cameron will nevertheless happily claim to represent the popular UK will when he engages in pathetic breast-beating in Europe on our behalf. That’s how modern democracies work. They are usually inefficient and often lead to individual policies - the Iraq War is one - for which no one voted and few outside the political elite want.
Cameron has made it clear that he doesn’t like Juncker; and for that matter neither do many others, including Labour and the Lib Dems. But how important is the new Commission president? Formally, he is the senior bureaucrat responsible for implementing priorities set by heads of government in the European Council. He is apparently a committed federalist, although decisions on what Angela Merkel refers to as ‘closer union’ can only come from the European Council. Juncker can propose legislation but not enact it. In other words, when it comes to fundamental changes in the way the EU works, the Commission does not and will not hold the whip hand. We should also not forget that there are 27 other commissioners of whom one will always be British so long as we are members.
Few dispute that reform is needed - not least because the principle of subsidiarity is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. It stipulates that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen - in other words at national, regional or local level - and only moved to EU level when strictly necessary. The subsidiarity principle was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht and elaborated in a Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam. Fully implemented it would, among other things, fire an arrow into the heart of UKIP and into Nigel Farage’s complaint that most of our laws are made in Europe.
Reform requires listening as well as proposing, a willingness to compromise on some things in order to achieve others, recognition that member states will have different objectives and be subject to different constraints. In threatening to head for the exit, Cameron has shown how utterly he has failed to understand the forces at play not least in Angela Merkel’s Germany but also with respect to the difficulties that would arise if the European Council had rejected the choice made by the EU parliament. Were this to happen, the parliament would lose whatever modest credibility it has managed to achieve and the resulting debacle would play into the hands of eurosceptics. Such considerations - and not just domestic pressure from the German coalition government including Merkel’s own Christian Democrat party - will have weighed heavily on her decision to accept what she may well see as a less-than-ideal candidate. Her position in turn will have influenced other leaders who harbour misgivings about Juncker.
In reality, the identity of the Commission president is less important than the policies that flow from cooperation between leaders within the European Council. And in this respect, Cameron seems as oblivious to the damage he is inflicting on the UK’s international standing as he is to the subtleties of negotiation and the need to develop partnerships with fellow leaders. In the process, he is doing what he is emphatically trying not to do - which is to play into the hands of UKIP. Nigel Farage will make hay with Cameron’s abject failure to impose his will on Europe.
We don’t know what reforms Cameron will decide are sufficient to enable him to recommend staying in the EU - but his self-inflicted isolation will not help to achieve them. Negotiations can take a long time, and he could end up in 2017 with nothing to offer of sufficient weight to make such a recommendation credible. If this happens, we could find ourselves heading for the exit even if that is not the end that Cameron has in mind.
What would an exit mean? Almost certainly it would bring about capital flight, disinvestment, and a significant increase in unemployment. Should the Scottish people reject independence this September, the SNP would have a strong case for trying again. The damage our departure would inflict on our economy and the backlash it would undoubtedly unleash in Europe would make the next few decades lonely and dispiriting. Cameron’s tantrums plus the hard-line euro-scepticism of many in his party, make it hard to avoid a sense that lunatics are bidding to take over the UK ship of state, and that animated by a bombastic media and a misguided sense of mission, they are bent on steering us towards mid-Atlantic isolation.
In a coruscating piece in the Telegraph Peter Oborne, hardly a left-winger, describes the Tory leader as “a shallow, amoral, conniving careerist whom it is no longer possible to regard …as a man of sound character and reliably decent morality.” He was writing about Cameron’s decision to hire Andy Coulson first as a senior aide and then as his director of communications. But Oborne could just as easily be referring to the Prime Minister’s myopic efforts to outdo UKIP on Europe. Cameron’s stance is not based on principle but on a crude calculation of electoral advantage; his interest is not that of the nation, but that of his own position; and when, as in this case, the two are opposed, he has shown all too clearly that retention of power is his first priority.
EU citizens have the right to live anywhere within the Union. If a 2017 “in-out” referendum goes against Europe, more than a few UK citizens might consider exercising that right before the UK ship leaves harbour. Some of us (including myself) may even like the idea of moving to a federal Europe, one where madmen like Blair would find it more difficult to take us to war on a lie, and where ex-members of the Bullingdon Club, right-wingers of aristocratic lineage and swollen bank accounts like Cameron and Osborne, could less easily destroy great egalitarian public institutions like the National Health Service. Labour and Tories alike are wedded to an extreme form of neo-liberal capitalism in which everything collectively built by the nation - rail, utilities, airports, health services, education, even school playing fields - has been or will be marketised and sold. Neo-liberals don’t believe in collective effort - which is one reason why they don’t like Europe. Results of their exertions so far include an alarming increase in inequality, widespread impoverishment in what is supposed to be a rich country, deindustrialisation on a huge scale, a nation profoundly ill at ease with itself and with its neighbours, and a political class characterised by a bovinely stubborn refusal to change course.
What of the bugbear of immigration? Right-wingers urged on by xenophobic sections of the media have succeeded in persuading large numbers of people that our open border to European workers is the cause of our ills. They are wrong. Worker exploitation is the problem: employers and gangmasters sidestepping minimum wage legislation so as to hire immigrants from eastern Europe willing to live half-a-dozen to a room. Forcing employers to pay everyone a living wage would reduce immigration figures much faster than unworkable attempts to change the principle of free movement within the EU for the simple reason that there would be less incentive to recruit abroad.
Where do we go from here? I for one intend to stay in Europe; but I don’t relish the prospect of stepping from the ship onto the dock as the lines are untied, and then watching my country steam off towards the Sargasso Sea.
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