faux pas noun \ˈfō-ˌpä, fō-ˈ\: an embarrassing social mistake
On June 27th, Jean-Claude Juncker was nominated by the Council of Member States as the next European Commission President. Only Hungary and the United Kingdom opposed the nomination, which does not have to be unanimous. Mr. Juncker’s nomination now has to be confirmed by the European Parliament in a vote on the 16th of July, but there is little doubt that the Luxembourgian will be confirmed by a substantial majority. Even Eurosceptic party UKIP is likely to vote in favor, if only to increase the possibility of a British rejection of continuation in the Union during a possible future referendum. If confirmed, Mr. Juncker would take over the top EU job from José Manuel Barroso in November.
Mr. Cameron had made a point of declaring Mr. Juncker’s nomination “unacceptable”: at a time when the EU desperately needed reform, said the British PM, the last thing the institution needed was a consummate insider to lead it. Beyond being an old hand at back-room dealings in Brussels, Mr. Juncker is also considered to be an ardent federalist, a true believer in “ever closer union”. Such a President would throw a monkey wrench into Mr. Cameron’s hopes to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s participation in Europe prior to holding a referendum on the subject. The Prime Minister has warned European leaders in no uncertain terms that they “may live to regret” their nomination, and not just because of the higher likelihood of a British exit.
The intransigence of the PM’s position and the open threats of British withdrawal from the EU only served to bewilder, exasperate and infuriate the rest of the continent. States that were initially receptive to discussing alternatives to Mr. Juncker, like Sweden and the Netherlands, became much less so as the British attacks on the candidate became more vitriolic, including assaults on Mr. Juncker’s home by paparazzi, charges of alcoholism and tabloid accusations of Nazi collaboration by his father. Nations much less tolerant of Britain’s now constant opposition to European initiatives, like France, are increasingly adopting the attitude of “just go then” to British threats. That is not yet the position of Angela Merkel – who does not want to be left alone in Europe with a powerful Club Med – but she was surely unhappy with being placed in an uncomfortable position yet again by Mr. Cameron.
Indeed, Mr. Cameron’s only success to date has been in making Britain even more isolated and disliked among her European partners. This is not due to any irreconcilable differences between Britons and other Europeans, but entirely to Mr. Cameron’s faux pas. He has picked bad and unpopular fights, ones he was always unlikely to win, and has then proceeded to manage them in a manner most likely to displease all and sundry. The Prime Minister is well on his way to completing his pas de deux, a virtuoso five-step movement in ballet: beginning with Britain’s unexpected and self-interested veto of the Franco-German euro treaty in 2011; the row over bankers’ bonuses in early 2013; now the stubborn and futile opposition to Mr. Juncker. By espousing such forlorn hopes in rapid succession, Mr. Cameron has brought British prestige in Europe to a nadir: from a useful, though challenging, partner to a country whose departure would be welcomed by many Europeans. On each occasion, the Prime Minister chose the most public and inflammatory route, making accommodation look too much like capitulation to Britain’s negotiating partners for them to acquiesce.
Perhaps Mr. Cameron feels that he must take such a “tough stance” in order to appease his Tory back-benchers and head off the challenge posed by Nigel Farage. It is also possible that Mr. Cameron is so focused on Britain’s national interest that he has lost sight of any and all common European interests; but in either case, his strategy seems self-defeating. The more Britain is isolated and the more often they are defeated in Europe, the greater the mutual antipathy felt towards each other. By emphasizing the unacceptable nature of Mr. Juncker, and by extension the institutions he will head come November, Mr. Cameron is playing into UKIP’s hands. A recent poll by the Daily Mail confirms this: Britons surveyed indicated they were much more likely to vote against Europe in a referendum with Mr. Juncker as President than without him, by almost 30 points. It will be ever more difficult to convince Britons to vote to stay in the Union when the time comes, if you’ve just spent months vilifying its new President. Yet Mr. Cameron insists that he does want Britain to stay in the EU.
In any event, it is a different Union that Mr. Cameron should be worrying about. With Scotland getting ready to vote in two months on remaining in a union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the British Prime Minister ought to be focusing his attention on the message of “Better Together”. A recent poll by ICM seems to indicate that the “Yes” vote for independence is stalling, with a -2% swing in July from a previous poll in June, and a corresponding +2% for the “No” vote. That is hardly the “nose dive” declared by the HuffPost; and in fact, the average of all monthly polls for each given month shows a slight increase in support for “Yes” in July, from 37% to 38%. Given that even in the more favorable interpretation, the “undecided” vote remains at an uncomfortable 21% – too much for any margin of safety, let alone comfort – Mr. Cameron would be well-advised to avoid distractions and redouble his efforts at maintaining the unity of Great Britain.
Mr. Juncker has nevertheless behaved in a statesmanlike manner throughout. Whatever his personal faults and despite more than sufficient cause for grievance, the President-elect has not only refrained from gloating over his defeated opponent, he has extended Mr. Cameron precisely the life-line his nomination was supposed to deny the British. Mr. Juncker has stated that he would make no effort to block British attempts to negotiate a repatriation of powers to the member states. He has reiterated his determination to keep Britain as an essential part of the Union as well as denying claims that he wishes to turn Europe into a supranational state. All this is still a far cry from supporting British reform demands – Mr. Juncker has only said he would not block them in principle – but it is an important face-saving gesture in what could otherwise only be viewed as a humiliating defeat for the Prime Minister. And if the EC President-elect lives up to his words, it may end up saving the European Union from a devastating Brexit.
Sources and Notes
“Juncker nominated as European Commission president,” France 24, 27 June 2014
Nicholas Watt, Ian Traynor, “Cameron tells EU it may live to regret Jean-Claude Juncker appointment,” The Guardian, 27 June 2014
Quentin Peel, “Cameron has overplayed his hand in campaign against Juncker,” Financial Times, 26 June 2014
“Commission Crusade: Cameron Outmaneuvered in Battle over Juncker,” Spiegel Online, 19 June 2014
Ian Traynor, Nicholas Watt, David Gow, “David Cameron blocks EU treaty with veto, casting Britain adrift in Europe,” The Guardian, 09 December 2011
Ian Traynor, “George Osborne rebuffed by rest of EU on bank bonuses,” The Guardian, 05 March 2014
Simon Walters, “Britons demand Euro exit: Shock MoS poll says voters agree Cameron was right to block president,” The Daily Mail, 29 June 2014
“Support For Scottish Independence Nosedives, Poll Shows,” The Huffington Post UK, 13 July 2014
 “Should Scotland be an independent nation?” What Scotland Thinks: includes polls commissioned by Angus Reid, Ipsos Mori, TNS-BMRB, Panelbase, Lord Ashcroft Polls, YouGov, ICM, Progressive Scottish Opinion and Survation.
“Juncker would let Britain take back powers while staying in EU – report,” The Guardian, 09 July 2014