22nd Mar 2018

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.

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  • 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.


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

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