With relentless determination, British Prime Minister David Cameron stood his ground but he was not magnificent in defeat. Fighting a losing battle to prevent the election of veteran Brussels insider, Jean-Claude Juncker, as European Commission president only pushed Britain farther in the Euroskeptic corner, from where it may never emerge. Britain’s influence over the European Union is melting away.
That’s a pity, because down the road Britain could make the EU its own in the same way Germany does today. That’s because Britain is on course to displace Germany as the biggest European economy. But Britain may not even be part of the EU in a few years. It may not even exist if Scotland wins its sovereignty referendum in September.
Britain has always been a Euroskeptic to some degree, depending in good part on its prime ministers’ cynical pandering to voters. Maggie Thatcher’s political star soared in the mid-1980s, when she negotiated a rebate from the EU budget (she argued, rightly so, that Britain was paying too much into agriculture subsidies, which largely benefited France, Italy and Spain). In later years, Britain toned down its Euroskepticism, even if it refused to adopt the euro, the currency now used in 18 of the EU’s 28 countries. It strongly endorsed the EU enlargements that brought former communist countries, such as Poland, into the fold.
It’s hard to say exactly when Britain went from Euroskeptic-lite to Euroskeptic-heavy, but there is no doubt it has been a defining feature of the Cameron era. Britain has ferociously opposed any EU-imposed banking regulations, for fear that London’s global financial clout would get sacrificed to an army of faceless gnomes in Brussels with a secret agenda to push Frankfurt to the forefront. In 2012, it vetoed and refused to join the fiscal compact, the European deal that imposed budget deficit and debt caps on the signatory countries. It has been ramping up its attacks on creeping “federalism,” the suspected EU agenda to shed member countries’ last scraps of sovereignty in the great effort to create a political and economic union.
Along the way, Mr. Cameron vowed to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017, assuming the Conservatives were to win the 2015 general election. His promise was widely seen as pandering to the Euroskeptics. There is a theory that Scotland’s own referendum is in part motivated by its fear of dropping out of the EU if Britain rejects it. An independent Scotland would want EU membership, though that would have to be negotiated.
Then came Nigel Farage, leader of the rabidly anti-Europe UK Independence Party. It placed first in Britain in the EU parliamentary elections in May. The party with similar anti-EU views, Marine Le Pen’s Front National, enjoyed the same success in France. Parties that are outright EU haters, Euroskeptic or simply want a serious debate on the speed of the whole European integration project won about a third of the votes in the EU election. The results, of course, have pushed Mr. Cameron even further onto the hard Euroskeptic fringe.
Which brings us to Mr. Juncker. He is the former Luxembourg prime minister who was, until 2013, president of the Eurogroup, the powerful club of euro zone finance ministers who oversee the monetary union and read the riot act to fiscal wastrels like Greece. Mr. Cameron apparently despises the man, not because he’s done anything rude or because he speaks French; it’s because he represents the face of relentless European integration, at least in the Briton’s view.
Mr. Cameron waged a lonely fight to prevent Mr. Juncker from getting the EC president’s job, which is somewhat ironic, given the eternal whining among British politicians about the EU’s “democratic deficit.” Mr. Juncker was the candidate for the centre-right European People’s Party, which won the most votes in the European election. He was backed by almost all of the EU leaders, including the one who matters most – German chancellor Angela Merkel. He got the blessing of the EU’s prime ministers and presidents on Friday. It would have been a failure of democracy if he did not get the job because one leader had his shorts in a knot about the candidate.
Yet even though Mr. Cameron’s campaign was doomed, he never stopped ramping up his anti-Juncker rhetoric. At the onset of the EU summit that anointed Mr. Juncker, he said, “It’s the wrong person. Jean-Claude Juncker has been at the heart of the project to increase the power of Brussels and reduce the power of nation states for his entire working life. He’s not the right person to take this organization forward.”
A more clever politician would have backed off and strived for a meaty consolation prize, such as secretary-general, the second most important EC job. Instead, Mr. Cameron seemed bent on isolating himself and Britain, apparently oblivious to the blow he was delivering to Britain’s negotiating power. If he wants to change the EU, it’s much easier to do so inside the EU than outside.
Mr. Cameron is seemingly oblivious to the greater economic trend that stands to put Britain on top in Europe. Britain’s economy is smaller than Germany’s and France’s, and more or less tied with Italy’s. But that’s changing in Britain’s favour, thanks to strong population and economic growth. By 2050, probably sooner, Britain’s population will be considerably greater than Germany’s. By 2030, its economy should overtake Germany’s, measured by economic output. Britain’s economy is growing at a 3 per cent clip, the fastest among the Group of Seven countries.
Germany used sheer size and industrial might to dominate the economic agenda in the EU. The buck, or in this case the euro, stops at the desk of the German chancellor. If Britain were to play the EU game, its rising economic power would allow it to shape the agenda in the not too distant future. Instead, Mr. Cameron embraced an attack and retreat strategy. Little England indeed.