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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

‘Britexist’ from the EU highly likely after Juncker’s appointment as commission head


At first, it was the passport fiasco, which saw the Home Office under Theresa May being overwhelmed with backlog of passport applications by Britons who planned their holidays abroad.  The Labour and official opposition leader, Ed Miliband, who always relished an opportunity to expose David Cameron’s frailties as a rudderless, waffling and, above all, as an out-of touch political geek, was emboldened that week to go to the House of Commons to portray Prime Minister Cameron as someone living in an ivory tower, completely living in the Westminster bubble, and unconcerned about the everyday lives of Britons.

Secondly, there was Cameron’s catastrophic error of judgment over the appointment of Andy Coulson, who had been convicted by the Old Bailey court for conspiring to hack phones. Andy was the communications chief of the prime minister at Number 10 Downing Street, the seat of British power. Again, Miliband’s line of attack against the Prime Minister was simple: “This prime minister will be best remembered as someone who brought a criminal to Downing Street”.   

The problems for the prime minister in a torrid week continued. On Thursday EU leaders met in Flanders, Yres, Belgium to make the centenary of the First World War. They all showed a rare unity, as they observed minutes of silence and laid wreathes to fallen heroes. The following day, on Friday, the toxic and polarising issue of the appointment of the next EU Commissioner who should replace the out-going Portuguese diplomat Jose Manuel Barusso was put on the table for discussion. 

It was clear since the outcome of “political-earthquake” elections in Europe in May for Members of the European Parliament (MEP) that the European People’s Party (EPP) who polled the largest MEPs in the EU Parliament were determined to push through the “spitzenkandiddenten”, which in Deutsch means the grouping with the largest MEPs will have its lead candidate as the next EU Commissioner. Jean Claude-Juncker, the erstwhile Luxembourg premier, was the leader of the EPP.  Martin Shultz headed the European Socialist Party. The newly-formed Europe Conservative Party for Reform, formed in 2011 at the behest of Cameron, fared badly. Based on this arrangement, Juncker was poised to take over from Mr Barusso. But European voters did not go to the polls in May having in mind that their votes will decide who will be the next EU President.


Enter the British

The arrangement, where the EU Parliament decides who becomes the EU Commissioner incensed the British prime minister who saw it as “a power-grab through the back door”. His opposition to Juncker has as much to do with the man as it has to do with principle. The principle is that the democratically-elected leaders of the 28 members of the EU should appoint a commissioner by consensus, as they have done in the past. Juncker is an arch-federalist, who Cameron sees as a threat to his much-vaunted EU reform plan. 

Such was the degree of Juncker’s unpopularity with the Westminster politicians in Britain that all political parties rallied behind Cameron to block him from becoming the next EU Commissioner. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, were categorical about their party’s position on a man they regarded as “a threat to British interest in the EU”. 

This should have strengthened Cameron’s hands in his dealing with fellow EU leaders. But at the heart of his botched campaign to thwart Juncker from becoming the European continent president lies the shenanigans of Cameron’s rivals, who showed support to him in public only to undermine his opposition to Juncker in private so as to expose him as someone who failed to stand up for British interest. 

In a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons, when the campaign to stop Juncker was running feverishly high in Britain, David Bradshaw, a Labour MP, asked Cameron about how his campaign to stop Juncker was going. The question was intentionally provocative, as Cameron earlier on dealt with the issue in the same chamber. But, not someone to be deterred, a defiant Cameron rose to his feet with an air of ineffable goodness to the dispatch box to answer the Labour MP’s question, which sparked a roar of laughter in the usually raucous House of Commons. He looked like the St Peter on his way to donate the death Judas’s sandals to a charity shop. “This is about principle, convictions and what is best for Britain”, he cared to remind Bradshaw and the British public. “I know the odds are heavily stacked against me”, he conceded, “but I will not budge for standing up for what I belief in”, a response that received thunderous cheers from his Tory backbenchers.


The Merkel factor 

The Germany chancellor, Angela Merkel, is indisputably the most powerful EU leader. This was made possible thanks largely to the Euro Zone crisis, which left Germany’s economy unscathed. Merkel was put in the driving seat to lead fiscal and structural reforms for the EU’s many sclerotic and uncompetitive member states that used the Euro like the PIGS nations: Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Italy and France are also wobbling under austerity programmes championed by her, putting France under Monsieur Francois Hollande in the back seat.

Cameron sensed the gravitas of the Merkel factor among EU leaders. Her visit to countries using the Euro carried big headlines among most ardent European newspapers. Bild in her home country and Le Figaro in France are constant companions of Merkel wherever her dose of remedies directed her to go. 

To court Merkel so that the reforms that he promised the British can be realised, Cameron held a series of meetings with the Germany Chancellor, not least among them when the red carpet was rolled for the eminence grise of Europe. Cameron expended lots of political capital on that visit. Despite criticism by some sections of the British media that rolling out a red carpet for chancellor, or prime minister as it is known in British parlance, was unprecedented. As if the red carpet stuff was not sufficient, Merkel was urged to address a joint session of the two chambers of the British Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. All these moves were interpreted as moves by Cameron to win Merkel over.   

If Cameron was expecting Merkel to share the political spoils with him during her speech, he was deeply disappointed. A cunning Merkel in her speech, refused to show her cards there and then, much to the chagrin of Cameron. When questioned by journalists on Merkel’s not showing support to his plan, a flushed David Cameron downplayed it all. Surely, he should have seen the writing on the wall. But did he get it?

The answer to that is a definite NO. He continued putting all his eggs in the Merkel basket, hoping to change her mind. In Sweden recently, Cameron, Fredrick Reinfield, the Swedish prime minister, Merkel and Mark Ruth, the premier of The Netherlands, held a meeting over Juncker’s candidature. The interesting outcome of this meeting was that Cameron emerged from it confident that he had persuaded all the two leaders except Merkel. 


Then came the main summit

Sweden and The Netherlands voted against Cameron. Only Prime Minister Victor Obrien of Hungarian voted with Cameron. In the end, it was 26/2 in favour of Jean Claude Juncker. It was a coronation! It was an emphatic victory for him! The victory gave him the ringing endorsement of Merkel, who mattered in the EU. Cameron emerged from it bruised, defeated and deflated. The day of the voting, I was at home taking a well-earned rest, but I was following events on the BBC World service radio. I returned to work on Saturday, surfed the Internet and downloaded the Guardian newspaper’s video of the press conference. When it was Cameron’s time to give his version of events, the British pressers sucked in their breath, winced and ducked behind their laptops waiting for the prime minister to finger the first journalist for question. Who will pull the trigger? The BBC’s chief political correspondent Nick Robinson. This was a clear indication that Cameron intended to talk to the British population, as many of them followed his trips abroad on the BBC. “Do you feel betrayed by the Dutch, Swedish and the Polish?” he asked. Cameron sidestepped the question and went on to repeat his line of never giving up.  

He unsheathed the doggy sword of persistence to his opponents, noting “sometimes you have to be willing to lose a battle to win a war”.  By referring to the war, he was outlining his reforms in the EU in the not-too-distance future when he retains his position at Number 10, which is going to be a heck of job for him, Linton Crosby, his campaign guru and the Tory party. Recent polls commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, a respected Tory peer, put Labour 4 points ahead of the Tory party which Cameron led.

But all in all, if he does win the election he will have to renegotiate Britain membership of the EU. Can he be assured of support from other European members? Not likely, because the reforms in trade, competition, tax, benefit tourism or harass of the welfare system by Romanians and Bulgarians, and free movement of people across borders, are reforms that many European leaders agreed on, as it feeds into the current European zeitgeist. The victory of the Far-Right parties in Britain by UKIP, France by the National Front and Greece by Golden Dawn, according to Cameron, showed that the status quo of the EU as it is, is untenable and unacceptable.

After all the political dusts have settled, Cameron will receive a barrage of flak from the ravenous British media. Comparisons will be made with former prime ministers. Why did Margaret Thatcher said no, no and no to the French Jacques Delors and won? Why Sir Winston Churchill was able to rally fellow EU leaders around him? These are questions that will hunt him in the days, months and years to come. He can hide behind the cover of a shift in the political tectonic plate of Europe, but critics will not be put off.  Expect a caesura in the troubled relationship between Britain and the EU, as Cameron played his trump-card: “Briexisit” from the EU. The vainglorious attempt by successive British prime ministers to restore Britain’s lost grandeur will surely continue. 


Amadou Camara is an American Corner intern and a final year political science and history student at the University of The Gambia.


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