Not quiet on the Western Front: Why Cameron will go down fighting
Tonight 28 EU leaders will symbolically mark 100 years since the outbreak of World War I by gathering in the West Flanders town of Ypres, the centre of intense fighting a century ago.
They will meet first in Flanders Field, the impressive museum in the centre of the city, before walking to the Menin Gate for the Last Post ceremony.
Then they will inaugurate a peace bench in the Menin Gate gardens before repairing to the city hall for dinner.
In such a solemn setting, EU leaders would have been expected to reflect on the wars that have ripped the continent apart, and on the achievements by successive European statesmen and women who have since forged a continental peace through the progressive and peaceful integration of sovereign countries.
But it is not to be.
Instead the two day summit, starting in Ypres, but then moving to Brussels, is being dominated by a bitter squabble between the UK and almost everyone else over who will be nominated as the next president of the European Commission.
Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, the body which represents 28 EU leaders, is desperate to focus on the strategic priorities of the union over the next five years when leaders sit for dinner.
The last thing he wants is rancorous brinkmanship involving Britain and Germany in the shadow of the Menin Gate.
But Fleet Street headline writers are already salivating over the notion of German revenge on the Western Front, one hundred years on.
Just as Europe’s kings, emperors and prime ministers sleepwalked into the carnage of the trenches, so too have today’s EU leaders stumbled, semi-attentive, into the current quagmire.
For the first time the EU’s preferred methodology will be cast aside, and instead of consensus in agreeing a nomination for the commission post, there will be a vote.
Cameron’s attempt to block Juncker
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has manoeuvred himself into this particular corner thanks to his relentless, and so far unsuccessful, attempt to outflank UKIP and his eurosceptic bank-benchers, but blame has been spread far and wide for the current institutional crisis.
In simple terms, Mr Cameron wants to block Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming commission president.
The former Luxembourg prime minister is, to British sensitivities at least, an arch-federalist who will dash down Britain’s attempts to reform the EU and to renegotiate London’s relationship with the rest of the EU.
Antagonism to Mr Juncker, the former chair of the eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, operates on several levels.
A string of British prime ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, are known not to have got along with Mr Juncker, a savvy Brussels insider.
For the current UK leader, whose premiership is now being defined by his handling of Europe, antagonism is about Mr Juncker himself, who he regards as too federalist, but more about the process of appointing him.
This is where the Spitzenkandidaten, or “lead candidates” come in.
For the past four years a policy was carefully evolved to turn the European Parliament elections into a parallel and defacto election for the post of commission president, a job historically chosen by EU leaders.
The European socialist grouping launched the idea at a meeting in Warsaw in 2010.
On that occasion, under the stewardship, incidentally, of Ireland’s current Education Minister Ruairí Quinn, the socialists argued that the expansion of EU institutions, and the greater role for national parliaments as enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, meant that citizens needed a greater input into the selection of the commission president, and the process itself needed to be more transparent.
If the political groups in the European Parliament each selected a lead candidate who could, by extension, become the nomination for president depending on which group won the most seats, then it would “transform the face of the European elections, as citizens will clearly see an immediate consequence of their vote,” the resolution concluded.
“It will also change the level of accountability of the European Commission towards European citizens and their elected representatives.
“As such, European elections will become as politically important as national elections, which should in turn, promote a higher voter turnout,” it read.
The resolution made little waves at the time. But the bigger centre-right block, the European Peoples’ Party, agreed a similar resolution in Bucharest two years later.
The idea of Spitzenkandidaten was also aggressively fostered by the secretary general of the European Parliament Klaus Welle, himself a German Christian Democrat and member of the EPP.
Emboldened by Article 17 (7) of the Lisbon Treaty, which says European leaders had to take “into account the elections to the European Parliament” when proposing a candidate to be the new commission president, Mr Welle and his advisers, in parallel with the mainstream, pro-European political groupings, pressed ahead with a fully-fledged “campaign” for the “election” of the top Brussels job.
This involved TV debates in a number of different countries between the “candidates”, namely Jean-Claude Juncker for the EPP, Martin Schulz for the Socialists (PES), Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, for the Liberals (ALDE), Ska Keller for the Greens, and Alexis Tsipras for the European Left.
The hope was that the Spitzenkandidaten process would give the elections, for the first time, a truly European dimension, and that it would increase voter turnout.
The results have varied drastically, depending on who you believe.
Voter turnout between 23-25 May did, indeed, increase, but only by 0.6%. As for the European dimension, the impact fluctuated dramatically.
Surveys showed that name recognition of the likes of Mr Juncker and Mr Schulz was patchy at best across the EU.
A study of newspaper coverage, by Simon Hix and Stuart Wilks-Heeg from the London School of Economics (LSE), found wildly disparate attention being paid to the process in Britain and Germany.
Eight weeks before the elections the British press only mentioned Mr Juncker and Mr Schulz in 27 articles during a given week.
In the German press, by contrast, there were 1,905 articles which mentioned the two Spitzenkandidaten.
The reason was clear enough.
The German press normally covers European affairs in greater depth and with greater seriousness than the British press.
Furthermore, on this occasion the two lead candidates were German-speaking, and the debates were broadcast extensively on German television, far more than in any other member state.
In the event, ignorance among the European voting public about the candidates and the process was not, it must be said, shared by European leaders.
Mr Cameron and MS Merkel were both fully aware that this process was under way.
Although they were both, in varying degrees, uneasy about the notion of a competence normally assigned to themselves being snatched by the European Parliament (an institution the British Prime Minister has little time for), they did nothing over the past few years to try and stop it.
Ms Merkel, indeed, was given several opportunities to throw her whole-hearted support behind the centre-right candidate, Mr Juncker (who was formally nominated as the EPP candidate during their congress in Dublin in February), but she declined to offer more than heavily-nuanced acknowledgement.
When the results came in and it was clear the EPP had won the most seats, Mr Juncker, naturally, declared that he had won the right to be the candidate nominated by the European Council, in other words, the 28 EU leaders.
Initially, Chancellor Merkel continued with her ambivalent response, saying that there was a “tableau” of candidates.
But the leaking of an exchange between the Chancellor and Mr Cameron during a post-election summit on 27 May in Brussels, rudely blew the niceties out of the water.
As leaked by the respected German news magazine Der Spiegel, Mr Cameron sensationally threatened to all but pull Britain out of the EU if Mr Juncker was nominated (in fact, he said that he would be under political pressure to bring forward his in/out referendum on British membership, a vote he said he may not be able to win).
Ms Merkel’s formidable reputation for playing a long, careful and resolute game was suddenly dented.
Instinctively averse to pushing Mr Cameron too far out on a limb, aware as she is of his weak flank in Westminster, and needful of him to reform the EU in her image, she initially balked at facing him down and forcing a Juncker nomination.
But she was suddenly hit with a domestic backlash, one she was not expecting. There was outrage within the ranks of her Christian Democrat Party that Mr Juncker might be ditched to satisfy London.
Bild am Sonntag, the German tabloid, howled that rejecting Mr Juncker, after the people had “spoken”, was worthy of East Germany under the worst excesses of communism.
Der Spiegel fumed: “The EU cannot… refuse to give the people of Europe what was assured to them before the election – that they could use their vote to determine the next president of the European Commission”.
Soon opinion polls were showing six out of ten Germans in favour of Mr Juncker, with less than 20% in favour of putting Mr Cameron’s interests first.
As capitals woke up to the seriousness of the institutional clash that was brewing, Mr Cameron sought allies. He found them in the reform minded capitals of Sweden and the Netherlands (and in Hungary).
British diplomats launched a furious campaign across Europe, and in Brussels in particular, decrying not so much Mr Juncker the man, but the process itself.
It was, they said, a naked power grab by the European Parliament.
Worse, the process and the outcome were just the kind of thing that had fuelled the rise of UKIP and anti-European sentiment across the EU.
Not only that, Mr Juncker himself was not the man to reform the EU to Britain’s liking, nor to reform it so that it produced jobs and growth quicker. That in turn was another reason British voters were hostile to Europe.
Officials pointed out, and it was true, that hostility to Mr Juncker united British parties across the spectrum like nothing else (even the europhile Nick Clegg, the Liberal Party leader, was opposed to Mr Juncker and the Spitzenkandidaten process).
Furthermore, they argued, a partisan candidate put forward by a partisan European Parliament would damage the European Commission’s role as the neutral defender of the treaties and of the Single Market, the only part of the EU that Britain actually cherishes.
Feelings in London were running so high that officials were warning Britain would not take things lying down.
“We are the awkward squad,” admitted a senior diplomat. “Sometimes that is our purpose in the EU. Some say we would be missed if we were not there. We are big, bold and stupid enough to [leave]. We could now become the super awkward squad. People in capitals need to think soberly about how to solve the UK problem in an amicable way.”
Although officials steered clear of using the term blackmail, it became clear to Ms Merkel that it was not far off it.
In an obvious reference to the UK, she warned against setting preconditions, and the offered her most robust support for Mr Juncker yet.
Tide turns against Cameron
Inexorably the tide was turning against Mr Cameron and in favour of Mr Juncker.
One by one the prime ministers that the British Prime Minister had cleaved to his side were issuing more nuanced remarks about the Juncker candidacy.
Then the new Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, meanwhile, emerged as a key player.
Fresh from his stunning performance in the European elections, his Democratic Party scored 41%, the highest of any continent wide, Mr Renzi was bringing much capital to the table, and seemed to be the most reform-minded Italian leader in years.
He is also leading the country which takes over the rotating EU presidency at the beginning of July, and with François Hollande, the French president, losing both domestic support and credibility fast, Mr Renzi is now the standard bearer of the centre left.
If Italy could be convinced to block Mr Juncker then, alongside Sweden, the Netherlands and Hungary, Mr Cameron would be able to muster a blocking minority, should it come down to a vote at the summit in Brussels this week.
But Mr Renzi was not for turning.
He threw his weight behind Mr Juncker, reportedly in exchange for a commitment that the next commission term will opt for growth over austerity.
And this is the other big theme that will emerge from the summit.
Part of the European Council’s (ie, the heads of government) role is to set out the union’s strategic priorities.
In light of the surge in support for eurosceptic and anti-European parties in the elections, the role has taken on added urgency.
Emerging as a key issue this week is how to respond to voters’ concerns by putting as much emphasis as possible on jobs and growth.
At the insistence of both Mr Renzi, and Mr Hollande, relaxing austerity is part of the strategic vision.
The Italian Prime Minister has pushed the idea of making the Stability and Growth Pact, the rule book which enshrines the 3% budget deficit rule, more flexible.
In particular he wants governments to be able to increase spending on worthwhile and job-rich public investment projects so that the spend will not be registered on a country’s debt and deficit level.
Ireland is keen on this. For some time, according to EU sources, government officials have quietly pushing the idea of using energy efficiency spending to boost employment, namely refitting the housing stock so that it is energy efficient through insulation, but in a way that will not push up Ireland’s already high debt and deficit levels.
“No one is calling for us to start ripping up the Stability and Growth Pact,” says one senior EU source.
“But investing in energy efficiency gives you immediate pay back in terms of jobs and growth. It pays for itself.”
All eyes will be on how much flexibility Germany agrees to.
In the meantime, Mr Cameron has vowed to force a vote on the issue of Mr Juncker on Friday, even though he has no chance of a blocking minority.
It will simply be to cover his flank against the eurosceptics at home, to show that he will “go down fighting” for a principle he believes in.
In the end Ms Merkel will have decided that her domestic standing is more important to her than Ms Cameron’s.
As they gather in Flanders, a German victory over Britain will be registered, and Mr Cameron will have to figure out where to next for the UK’s relationship with the European continent.