Tuesday

12th Dec 2017

Column / Brexit Briefing

David Cameron: The end of the reluctant European

  • Cameron (r) barely hid his dislike of the Justus Lipsius summits (Photo: Consillium)

Less than three months ago, David Cameron was the dominant British politician of his generation and, it was expected, on the verge of winning a referendum that would end his party’s obsession with the European Union.

On Monday (12 September), two months after quitting as prime minister, he administered the last rites to his political career by resigning as an MP.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Cameron stepping down as PM after the 23 June referendum (Photo: Number 10 Downing Street)

Politics is a brutal profession. 

Like all too many British politicians from both right and left, Cameron never tried very hard to make friends in Brussels or other European capitals, despite having plenty of common ground with the likes of Mark Rutte from the Netherlands, Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt, and others.

Every time he addressed the press corps at the end of an EU summit, it was impossible to miss his sense of sheer irritation of having to be in the European Council's Justus Lipsius building, deprived of sleep and natural light.

As a result, his approach to European relations lacked any long-term strategy, instead seeking victories that tended to be pyrrhic and short-term, aimed at pleasing the headline writers of tomorrow's UK tabloids, each time costing more precious good will from fellow EU leaders.

Refusing to agree to the fiscal compact treaty in 2011 (and then wrongly describing it as a veto, when the rest of the EU put it into law anyway) stands out, as does Cameron’s insistence that Britain would not pay a €2.1 billion EU budget surcharge in autumn 2014, only to quietly cough up the cash a few months later.

Similarly, staking everything on blocking Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming European Commission president in 2014, but without having a credible alternative candidate, might have been the right stance to take but was ineptly executed.

Leading his MEPs out of the European People’s Party (EPP) group in 2009 was the first of a series of short-term victories that became long-term tactical blunders. Outside the centre-right EPP, which includes most presidents and prime ministers across the EU, building alliances was made much harder.

When he did attempt to promote a policy agenda rather than try to block someone else’s - for example the “better regulation” agenda now taken on by Dutch Commissioner Frans Timmermans - other governments were suspicious that the UK’s involvement had an ulterior motive.

It was hardly surprising then that when Cameron could have used some European friends to give him a reform package that could be sold to a British public used to a hearty diet of euroscepticism, he had nobody to ask for favours.

The result was the thin gruel of his attempted “renegotiation”, expecting to secure vetoes or guarantees on migration and financial services, and coming away with next to nothing.

Failure to persuade

Among British conservatives there was always a sense of disbelief at being rebuffed in the EU institutions.

A frequent refrain was that there was “a lack of understanding” from their counterparts. It never seemed to have occurred to them that they might have to make more effort at persuading people. The same was true of Cameron.

Cameron was known as the “essay crisis” prime minister, by reference to a university undergraduate who tries to overcome lack of preparation by frantically cramming everything into the night before their tutorial.

The all-nighter in 2014 which produced an EU budget framework that capped spending at 1 percent of GDP and preserved the British rebate was probably Cameron’s most substantial achievement at EU level.

But ultimately, winging it doesn’t work in Brussels. Details are king and the politicians who do their homework are the ones who carry the day.

Inevitable

Yet for all his frustrations with all things Brussels, and his obvious wish that it would just disappear, Cameron never wanted to be the leader responsible for taking Britain out of the EU.

But by failing to either face down Tory eurosceptics or build the alliances needed to pursue his vision of a low-regulation, single market-focused EU, he made Brexit almost inevitable.

Cameron’s self-confidence, and his Etonian nonchalance, was summed up in his famous assertion that he wanted to be prime minister because he thought he’d be “rather good at it”.

Yet despite his dominance in Westminster, few of the Brussels press corps were impressed by Cameron’s often petulant summit performances. To most of them, Cameron was the epitome of Britain as the “reluctant European”, if not flat-out eurosceptic.

If that confidence was justified at home, it certainly wasn’t in Brussels, and on 23 June his luck ran out.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer

Cameron's advice to May: Stay close to the EU

During his last appearance in parliament as British prime minister, Cameron said it would be good for the UK and for Scotland to keep close relations with the EU.

Iceland: further from EU membership than ever

With fewer pro-EU MPs in the Iceland parliament than ever before, any plans to resume 'candidate' membership of the bloc are likely to remain on ice, as the country prioritises national sovereignty and a more left-wing path.

Fighting the terrorist virus on the internet

EU home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopolous congratulates some media platforms on their efforts to take down jihadist terrorist content at the EU Internet Forum - but warns it is 'not enough to turn tide'.

News in Brief

  1. Senior EU finance ministers come out against US tax reform
  2. Croats honour 'Hague suicide' war criminal
  3. EU opens new accession talks with Serbia, Montenegro
  4. EU to Israel: Don't expect us to move embassies
  5. EU Commission condemns anti-semitic 'Jerusalem' protests
  6. Ministers have 'lots of questions' on new CAP plans
  7. Commission: Brexit agreement is 'deal between gentlemen'
  8. 25 EU states sign defence cooperation pact

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  2. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  3. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  5. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  6. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  7. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEU-Armenia Relations in the CEPA Era: What's Next?
  9. Mission of China to the EU16+1 Cooperation Injects New Vigour Into China-EU Ties
  10. EPSUEU Blacklist of Tax Havens Is a Sham
  11. EU2017EERole of Culture in Building Cohesive Societies in Europe
  12. ILGA EuropeCongratulations to Austria - Court Overturns Barriers to Equal Marriage

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Centre Maurits CoppietersCelebrating Diversity, Citizenship and the European Project With Fundació Josep Irla
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceUnderstanding the Social Consequences of Obesity
  3. Union for the MediterraneanMediterranean Countries Commit to Strengthening Women's Role in Region
  4. Bio-Based IndustriesRegistration for BBI JU Stakeholder Forum about to close. Last chance to register!
  5. European Heart NetworkThe Time Is Ripe for Simplified Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling
  6. Counter BalanceNew EU External Investment Plan Risks Sidelining Development Objectives
  7. EU2017EEEAS Calls for Eastern Partnership Countries to Enter EU Market Through Estonia
  8. Dialogue PlatformThe Turkey I No Longer Know
  9. World Vision7 Million Children at Risk in the DRC: Donor Meeting to Focus on Saving More Lives
  10. EPSU-Eurelectric-IndustriAllElectricity European Social Partners Stand up for Just Energy Transition
  11. European Friends of ArmeniaSignature of CEPA Marks a Fresh Start for EU-Armenia Relations
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Ministers Pledge to Work More Closely at Nordic and EU Level