A victory or a loss? Was it actually a war? After the severe confrontation between the British PM David Cameron and the rest in the EU over the election of a European Commission president, the assessment of the outcome depends on which side of the Channel it is made. The biggest loser, however, is the EU itself with Britain in it because neither London got what it wanted nor the EU looks sufficiently ambitious in its plans about the future. The outcome of the clash is that the leaders of the member states have opened the door to the United Kingdom, nominated Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission chief and went on with their usual small steps toward deepening the integration.
The British premier's biggest mistake was his tone. This was starkly evident during the culmination of the conflict which coincided with the commemoration of the centennial anniversary from the beginning of World War I in the Belgian town of Ypres. After the official ceremonies, the leaders of the 28 gathered for an informal dinner to try and find a solution to the problem which was to a large extent created by Britain and its badly planned diplomatic offensive. On the next day, in spite of the expectations for long negotiations, the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy surprisingly early tweeted that a decision was made Jean-Claude Juncker to be nominated as head of the Commission. David Cameron's rhetorics was bellicose all the time. Before journalists after the end of the summit he was talking about a battle, a war, about victories and losses. And this is not the first time. To him, all summits, when key long-term issues for the Union are debated, are reduced to just a victory or a loss. He recalled that he was the only one to dare veto the fiscal compact, that he was the only one who dared to demand a reduction of the Community's multi-annual budget and although everyone told him it was impossible he succeeded.
Something which is in sharp contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's attitude who told journalists on Friday afternoon that the marking of the centennial anniversary in the Belgian town reminded of the spirit Europe moves and decisions are taken. If translated for Cameron, this means that Europe has learnt its lessons and now it does not fight but seeks a compromise. The British prime minster tried to present his campaign as a fight for his principles. If one truly believes in a principle they should fight for it till the end in spite of the perspective to lose, he told British and foreign journalists. Is this the right tactics and is the principle worth it is to British voters to decide. One of the biggest lessons from Ypres is, however, that the EU is not a sum of national or individual principles but something much more.
Cameron's second biggest mistake is that he turned the actually justified campaign for reform of the EU into a personal offensive against the very personality of Jean-Claude Juncker as a Spitzenkandidat for Jose Manuel Barroso's post. Cameron is absolutely right that the EU does need a reform. Something that the German chancellor admits too, saying that the EU needs a new direction oriented toward financial stability, growth, employment, innovation and reduction of bureaucracy. If Cameron and his team knew the EU well, they should have known better that making sharp turns is not at all possible, especially with a union of already 28 member countries with diverse economic, political and social development, different cultures and mentalities. Therefore, the politics of the small step is very specific to the Community.
To expect the EU to agree to a radical reform entirely fitting into UK's interests even before it held its in-out referendum, is a very serious mistake which is yet to cost dearly to Britain because the domestic and inter-party problems were very transparent behind Cameron's claims for reform of the EU. At times, his campaign was hysterical, full of threats, ultimatums and drawing of black scenarios for the EU future which is an approach not worth paying attention to.
Last but not least, the timing of the anti-Juncker campaign was wrong - after the cards were already dealt out and the game had started, which means that all countries participated one way or another (excluding Britain) in the nomination of the Spitzenkandidaten within their European political families. This is what Croatia Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic explained who, too, has doubts about whether the Spitzenkandidat procedure is actually what the Treaties say. But he said that since the European leaders silently agreed the game to begin they should have played it till the end.
Cameron's three hollow arguments
To David Cameron, who has the ambition to be the reborn Margaret Thatcher, the main problem with the Spitzenkandidaten is that they give too much power to the European Parliament which lacks the necessary democratic legitimacy. This, for its part, leads to weakening of the national parliaments and poses risks for democracy in the EU. This is not true because the European Parliament consists of members elected during national elections. And although there are no sufficiently convincing data to prove that people were led in their choice by the Spitzenkandidaten, there are also no data to prove otherwise. Another worry of Cameron's is that next time a Spitzenkandidat could fight in his or her campaign against NATO interfering in support of the Baltic states (sic) or to demand Greece to leave the euro area. It is also possible, he said, someone to demand abolishing the Stability and Growth Pact. Besides, this procedure prevents acting prime ministers or presidents to stand for the European Commission president post.
These claims are not supported by facts because it was precisely presidents and prime ministers who participated in the selection of Spitzenkandidaten during party congresses. Among the discussed names by the various political families were also acting prime ministers and heads of state. Moreover, Finland's Premier Jyrki Katainen announced formally that he was giving up his premiership to pursue a European post. He will be Finland's commissioner in the new European Commission, although unofficially his name circulates as a possible successor of Herman Van Rompuy as a European Council president. So, nothing prevents a sitting prime minister or president to stand for a European post if they had decided and had received national support. Another sitting prime minister - Ms Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Denmark) - also was on the informal list of candidates for Jose Manuel Barroso's chair. And she was vigorously supported by David Cameron himself. Among the nominations on a party level there was a sufficient number of sitting heads of state or government.
Another argument of the British government against Juncker was that he is a staunch federalist which seriously deviates from the behaviour and theses of the former Luxembourg prime minister during his campaign. In all election debates that took place on national and pan-European media, Jean-Claude Juncker demonstrated modesty, reticence and unhidden desire for a special dialogue with the United Kingdom. He rejected many of his previous federalist views by presenting himself as a realist. Juncker's behaviour toward Britain seriously weakened this argument of the British diplomacy, especially against the backdrop of the very clearly stated federalist among the Spitzenkandidaten - Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the Liberals in the European Parliament.
The third completely unjustified argument is that if Juncker were elected this would lead to Britain leaving the EU. There is no direct link between the two because the country's stay in the EU depends entirely on its domestic policy not on who is at the helm of the Commission. Moreover, the holding of a referendum is directly linked to the re-election of the Conservatives and David Cameron as a prime minister.
David Cameron is still right that the EU does need a serious reform. And this the only thing there is complete consensus about between him and the rest in the EU. The differences stem from the answer how. The speed of reforms, too, is different. That is why in the summit conclusions it was written Friday that everyone is free to move with whatever speed they want without imposing it on the rest. And a little later, in an article for The Daily Telegraph, the British premier pointed out that, in fact, there is no such thing as different speeds but a different direction. In such a case, the British society should first answer the question "In what direction should UK continue?" and only then to demand from the EU anything.
David Cameron's failure is serious precisely because, just like the steadfast tin soldier, he plunged into the fire of the reform he wanted before it was realised for the sake of a paper ballerina. In the European Council conclusions it is stated that the EU needs to pay attention to UK's concerns. It is not said neither when nor how or whether the UK will take part. The British prime minster said this was victory. Yes, this sentence is his paper ballerina.