How to lose friends and alienate people, or Cameron’s EU policy

Article published on July 4, 2014
Article published on July 4, 2014

Watch­ing David Cameron in Eu­rope is a bit like watch­ing a kid make a stain on his shirt and rub it, mak­ing it big­ger and big­ger. The British prime min­is­ter’s diplo­macy has gone from bad to worse in re­cent weeks and the dis­il­lu­sion­ing per­for­mance in the Juncker episode means that Cameron has struck out in Eu­rope.

Less than a month ago, Cameron was pic­tured in a boat with his col­leagues Merkel, Rutte and Re­in­feldt but soon after that he was left row­ing against the cur­rent by him­self. Eu­ro­pean lead­ers have had quite enough of their British coun­ter­part and refuse to be bul­lied into mak­ing de­ci­sions. As it turns out empty threats and ar­ro­gance are not the best tac­tics for reach­ing suc­cess­ful out­comes in diplo­macy.

Cameron al­ready shot him­self in the foot five years be­fore he be­came prime min­is­ter of the United King­dom. Hav­ing won the Tory lead­er­ship, he promised the Eu­roscep­tics within his party that the Con­ser­v­a­tives would leave the cen­tre-right Eu­ro­pean Peo­ple’s Party – Eu­ro­pean De­moc­rats group in the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment. This de­ci­sion bit him in the arse nine years later (karma?), as the To­ries could have ve­toed Juncker if they had still been part of what is now called the EPP.

But the first se­ri­ous blow to his EU pol­icy cre­den­tials came in Jan­u­ary 2013 when Cameron pro­posed the EU ref­er­en­dum bill. He con­siders him­self ‘Di­rect Democ­racy Dave’, but it is an open se­cret that the pri­mary pur­pose of this pro­posal was to ap­pease Tory back­benchers.

Pol­ish Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs Radosław Siko­rski re­cently noted, full and frank, that Cameron has re­peat­edly demon­strated his in­com­pe­tence in Eu­ro­pean af­fairs: “He does not get it, he be­lieves in the stu­pid pro­pa­ganda, he stu­pidly tries to play the sys­tem.” The British leader should have tried to con­vince peo­ple as op­posed to feed­ing scraps to the scep­tics.

Pre­dictably, the hard­lin­ers did not prove to be eas­ily ap­peased or as Scot­tish first min­is­ter Alex Salmond po­et­i­cally com­mented: “You can never out swivel-eye the swivel-eyed.” It is worth re­mem­ber­ing that Cameron said ‘no’ to an in/out ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship in 2011 and he should have held this po­si­tion when Eu­roscep­tics called for a British exit. In­stead, he chose to dance to the tune of a mi­nor­ity within his own party.

Going after the few that he con­sid­ers his own in­stead of pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of the many is, how­ever, char­ac­ter­is­tic for his per­for­mance as prime min­is­ter. It is why the NHS had to be de­stroyed to fill the pock­ets of his sup­port­ers and ac­com­plices like Baroness Bot­tom­ley who, no doubt com­pletely im­par­tially, voted on the Health and So­cial Care Bill de­spite fi­nan­cial links to three health care com­pa­nies.

Cameron will now have to hold a ref­er­en­dum he never wanted in the first place in case he is re-elected in 2015. It also proved to his Eu­ro­pean col­leagues that he is not a team player and not com­mit­ted to work to­wards a bet­ter func­tion­ing Union; he is only after sav­ing his own skin. Strike one.

More re­cently, Cameron de­cided to fiercely op­pose the ap­point­ment of Jean-Claude Juncker as Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent. “Some­times you have to lose a bat­tle to win a war,” the head of the British gov­ern­ment stated shortly after Juncker’s nom­i­na­tion. Maybe so, but a com­man­der worth his salt would pick his bat­tles more care­fully. The Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dency is a high pro­file po­si­tion, but not some­thing for which to burn your boats.

More­over, the God­fa­ther of Lux­em­bourg bank se­crecy would not have been ap­pointed if Cameron had had the diplo­matic shrewd­ness of his pre­de­ces­sors Blair and Brown. The for­mer Labour lead­ers skil­fully and suc­cess­fully blocked Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt and Jean Lemierre for key po­si­tions in pol­i­tics and fi­nance in the past.

When Cameron was met with re­sis­tance, he started is­su­ing empty threats say­ing “he would no longer be able to guar­an­tee that Britain would re­main a mem­ber of the EU if Eu­ro­pean lead­ers elected Juncker”. He ap­pears to have for­got­ten that he is in no po­si­tion to threaten any­one.

First, he needs to be re-elected be­fore he can even hold a ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship. Sec­ond, the way a ref­er­en­dum usu­ally works is that you let the peo­ple de­cide and in most cases the out­come is not pre-de­ter­mined. In other words, Cameron can­not guar­an­tee any­thing about any­thing.

The Tory leader’s EU pol­icy and diplo­macy skills have fallen short on every level. Be­fore the Juncker fi­asco, he lacked lever­age for his rene­go­ti­a­tion agenda, but his ob­sti­nate at­tempts to block the Lux­em­bour­gian have made any re­main­ing good­will dis­ap­pear.

The tragedy is that Cameron did not stand alone on the Juncker issue, at first. The for­mer pres­i­dent of the Eu­rogroup was no­body’s favourite as even po­lit­i­cal heavy­weights of his own EPP fam­ily only of­fered him luke­warm sup­port. Yet, by launch­ing a se­ries of sense­less per­sonal at­tacks on ‘Mr. Euro’, rants about the process, and threats of a British exit, he man­aged to lose friends and alien­ate peo­ple in a mat­ter of weeks. Strike two.

De­spite all this, Cameron’s po­si­tion was still re­cov­er­able if only he showed a lit­tle hu­mil­i­a­tion in his de­feat. But the press con­fer­ence fol­low­ing Juncker’s nom­i­na­tion had no sign of that: “I’ve told EU lead­ers they could live to re­gret the new process for choos­ing the Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent.”

This self-right­eous at­ti­tude dashed the last bit of hope he may have had for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with his Eu­ro­pean peers, who are now more likely to es­cort him to the exit than ac­qui­esce to his re­quests. Strike three, you’re out, Cameron.