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23rd Feb 2019

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Fighting Juncker – how not to conduct a battle

  • Merkel and Cameron - the former does not appreciate the threats made by the latter (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

It is a bizarre way to fight a battle, particularly when the stakes are so high. What led David Cameron to pursue this anti-Juncker campaign in such a spectacularly foot-stomping manner?

His stirring of the tabloids, attack-the-man tirade of recent weeks has achieved little. Indeed, recent developments indicate that Jean-Claude Juncker is increasingly likely to be nominated as EU commission president at the summit next week.

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The drama will then move to the European Parliament where a majority of MEPs has to vote in favour. But that institution's main political groups are well aware that if Juncker is voted down, the Spitzenkandidat system (which they are very fond of) will be dealt a death blow.

Cameron's mistake was to campaign in a remarkably black and white do-or-die manner when, as ever, EU issues are grey. The Spitzenkandidat process is flawed but no less democratic than the among-EU-leaders horse-trading that the UK favours.

This means a more thoughtful argument was needed.

But any reasonableness (and EU reform is a reasonable argument even if Downing Street's ideas on the issue remain vague) has been obscured by the aggressive nature of London's campaign.

Thus far all Cameron has to show for it is a rebuke by German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the threat that Juncker's appointment could hasten the UK's EU exit.

More broadly Cameron's rhetoric means that anything less than Juncker being rejected by EU leaders or actually withdrawing from the race will represent a defeat for him.

A more astute tactic would have been to get Juncker to make concrete London-favoured policy proposals in his programme for the coming five years. There are enough reform-minded states in the EU, including Germany, to make this possible.

But this will no longer be enough.

The issue now goes beyond (potentially) failed UK diplomacy.

It puts the EU as a whole in an awkward position. Cameron's potential face-saver at this late stage of the game could be a vote in the European Council.

The decision to nominate Juncker would have to be taken by a qualified majority (and it looks like the UK will be unable to form a blocking minority).

If Cameron could say he was out-voted, then he, or the press, can conveniently blame it on other member states, particularly Germany, as it is likely to come down to Merkel whether it goes to a vote.

This outcome is likely only to harden the stance in the UK, potentially setting it on the path towards rejecting EU membership if it comes to a referendum in 2017.

Cameron will find it harder to convince voters – and his own Conservative Party – that he is able to make good on his promises of EU reform if he is not able to oust a politician he has campaigned so vigorously against.

The alternative is that EU leaders do not nominate Juncker – and provoke an institutional crisis with the parliament.

Merkel will have to weigh up whether the domestic backlash and fight with the EP is worth letting Cameron win his battle.

It's a silly position for everyone to be in.

And it would be a shame if Britain's EU membership debate had its foundations on an ill-fought battle over Jean-Claude Juncker.

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