26 Jun 2014

David Cameron at Ypres: very well, alone

Am on the way to Ypres for stage one of a two day European Council that is expected to end with a vote in Brussels on Friday afternoon on whether Jean-Claude Juncker should be the next European Commission President.

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All this week in the build up to this summit, David Cameron has been enjoying a Mexican wave of approval from one particular section of his party.

On Wednesday, he was metaphorically thumped on the back by Sir Gerald Howarth in the Commons yesterday and wished all the very best with his “very well, alone” strategy in Brussels. Sir Gerald wants out of the EU.

Mr Cameron says he wants to stay in. Dora Gaitskell once famously said as she watched her husband Hugh, basking in a Labour conference ovation, “all the wrong people are cheering.”

Mr Cameron’s opposition to Mr Juncker has the support of Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. But I hear the latter has been less than enthusiastic about ringing up fellow EU polyglots to lobby for Mr Cameron’s position and it is amongst the Tory “outers” that you find most unbridled enthusiasm for the PM’s approach.

Read more: Merkel and Cameron – unstitching a stitch-up

I met two very cheerful Tory “outers” as they left Downing Street drinks with the PM on Monday night. “Marvellous stuff,” one said. The defeat over Juncker – perhaps by as much as 27 to one – “will crystallise everything,” another said. “It shows better than ever how they’re going off in one direction and we’re going off in another,” another Tory “outer” said.

The PM is building up a pretty set of trophy defeats on Europe for his mantelpiece. Pride of place goes to the Fiscal Compact he “vetoed” to public acclaim and yet which came into existence anyway. He will make no pretence that the vote on Friday in Brussels is a “veto” but quite what he will say post-defeat is giving many old Brussels hands the heeby-jeebies.

Downing Street is pointedly not killing speculation that the prime minister might say he could yet be an “outer” himself if the EU doesn’t budge much in a future renegotiation. That’s a position others urged on him before his January 2013 speech announcing the referendum pledge but which he rejected back then. Amongst other things, it was seen as too hostile to the EU and too defeatist about the entire renegotiation plan he was offering.

How did we get here? It depends very much who you listen to. The UK is insistent that German chancellor Angela Merkel was signalling she loathed the Spitzenkandidaten plot, the plan by a coterie within the European Parliament to dictate to the European Council heads of government who runs the European Commission.


London says at first Chancellor Merkel said her centre-right grouping wouldn’t follow the centre-left grouping in going down this power-grab route. Then, London says, she promised there would be “no automaticity” to the “who tops the European Parliament elections gets the European Commission job” principle. She was virtually “handing out pamphlets” to that effect, I was told by someone close to the whole process.

She was singing the same song in February on her visit to London and shortly afterwards when Mr Cameron went to Hannover. At the last European Council meeting in May and at the G7 Brussels meeting the next week she was, London says, indicating that she didn’t want Mr Juncker, the EPP nominee for the European Commission job to get it. She was wishing Mr Cameron good luck with his plans to get a blocking minority though indicating she couldn’t vote with him herself.

Read more: Juncker – will Ypres be D-Day?

Then, when she was in Sweden for the gathering with the Dutch, Swedish and UK Premiers, something changed. Philip Stephens in the FT last week said she wanted to make sure at all cost that Martin Schulz (the centre-left Spitzenkandidat) wasn’t given the consolation prize of vice president of the European Commission. The thought of his very different outlook becoming a major alternative German voice on the European scene was too much to bear. So she agreed to back Mr Juncker to the hilt, dump any understandings with Cameron and indeed, since the Sweden trip, has actively warned off any potential allies Mr Cameron had in other countries for his ditch Mr Juncker enterprise.

I should say there is a feisty briefing from Germany that this chronology is all wrong. Trying to get through to Mr Cameron recently has been “a dialogue of the deaf.”

Chancellor Merkel has been consistent though her room for manoeuvre reduced. Mr Cameron wasn’t clear on his opposition, failed to come up with any alternatives to Mr Juncker apart from the unacceptable (as centre-left) Danish PM. His approach was too public, too confrontational. He could’ve got somewhere with better tactics. And all this is coming from an ally on whom Mr Cameron’s 2017 renegotiation strategy is mightily dependent.

Apart from their attack on Mr Juncker as the quintessential “business as usual” candidate, the people around Mr Cameron also talk about how he, the PM, can’t conduct “business as usual.” lf he went to Europe and did a deal allowing Juncker to get the job but winning some concessions, such is the scepticism about the EU (and by implication Mr Cameron and UK political leaders too) that “no-one would believe he’d got anything.”

That really does make you wonder how the UK is going to conduct business in Europe in future. The EU has moved more and more to qualified majority voting and away from vetos. It is all about deals.

There are 28 member states. Though there would be 27 if Sir Gerald Howarth is right and Mr Cameron’s tactics are delivering winning arguments and campaign boosts to those who want the UK to leave.

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