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Mr Cameron’s blunder

Publication Date : 04-07-2014


On 26 June, European Union (EU) leaders had a dinner in the Belgian town of Ieper to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War. Ieper (Ypres) witnessed some of the worst battles during that War.

But instead of celebrating the reconciliation of Europe’s old enemies, the dinner turned into acrimonious heated exchanges between the British PM David Cameron and most of the other EU leaders. The issue was the nomination of the next President of the European Commission, the most important point on the agenda of the summit of EU leaders the following day.

Until now, leaders of EU member-countries nominated the President of the European Commission on their own on the basis of consensus. This time, however, was different. EU leaders had to adhere to the terms of the Lisbon Treaty that categorically commits them to make their decision after taking results of the EU parliamentary election into account. In this election, a veteran European integrationist and an old hand in the European bureaucracy, Jean-Claude Juncker, was the lead candidate for the European People’s Party (EPP) that won most seats in the European Parliament. EPP staked their claim to make him President of the European Commission.

The two main opposition parties in the European parliament supported this decision to stamp the authority of the European Parliament on future EU affairs. It was virtually impossible for even the detractors of Jean-Claude Juncker to change the tide of events, and they grudgingly decided to support him. Only David Cameron decided to stop the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker at all costs for the post of the President of the European Commission.

With no European leader supporting the British Prime Minister’s position publicly, David Cameron forced the President of EU, Herman van Rompuy, to agree on putting the issue to a vote in the summit meeting on 27 June. In an informal dinner in Warsaw right after that agreement, that was secretly taped and published in newspapers worldwide, top Polish ministers criticised the “stupidity” of David Cameron with colourful expletives.

This sums up roughly the feeling of almost everyone on the Continent. As expected, Jean-Claude Juncker was nominated with 26 - 2 votes, with only the ultra conservative, semi-fascist, Prime Minister Viktor Orb?n of Hungary supporting Cameron.

The immediate cause of Cameron’s European blunder was the result of the latest election to the European Parliament. There the Europhobe United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage stunned everyone by securing the largest share of the popular votes, and by default, the largest number of seats in the European Parliament from the United Kingdom. Cameron’s major concern now is to save his own skin and that of his party. Voters of the Conservative Party are most likely crossovers to the UKIP in a general election.

England was never keen to join the EU, then known as ECSC and later as EEC, at its inception. However, faster growth within the EEC relative to Britain forced some rethinking in the English business community. Britain finally applied for membership to the EEC in 1961. In a historical veto Charles De Gaulle denied British entry to the EEC in 1963. Following one more rejection by France in 1967, Britain finally was admitted to the EEC in 1975 after a nationwide referendum.

However, a large number of nay voters never accepted the result of that referendum, which is utterly surprising given England’s longest record of democratic tradition. The issue also had no ideological underpinnings. Both major political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, were equally divided on the issue. The only consistent advocates in favour of the membership were members of the small Liberal Party.

British entry into the EU was a purely economic necessity. It signified England’s abandoning any pretence of being an independent world power. Their anti-European feeling is evident in the role they played within the EU during the last thirty-nine years. They have been a constant irritant in all EU decision-making processes, which reached its peak during the Thatcher era.

They did not join the Euro, but continue demanding a place in decision-making meetings on the currency. They blackmailed other EU countries into agreeing to various unilateral opt-out clauses for Britain in the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. They routinely hold up EU budget meetings to get the maximum concessions possible. But then why do other EU countries accept their indulgence?

There are at least two important reasons. Firstly, the North European protestant countries also feel uncomfortable with the budget profligacy advocated by the South European countries and tacitly support the British position. The other is the constant fear among the smaller European countries about the French-German axis fixing all major decisions between them and leaving others with the fait accompli. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was the additional reason of Britain acting as an anchor for American commitment to Europe in case of any eventuality.

Cameron was feeling the heat already for a while now, both from the UKIP and the Thatcherite wing in his own party. The reason was the steps taken by the Eurozone leaders to save the Euro. The deepening of European monetary and fiscal union, necessitated by the Euro crisis, is leading to the emergence of a two-tier Europe with the Eurozone countries at the core and the rest at the periphery of the Union. As more and more countries succeed in joining the core, Britain will be virtually isolated in the Union.

This realisation caused anti-European right-wing Conservatives to demand British withdrawal from the EU as soon as they came to power in Westminster. Already roughly one-third of Conservative MPs would vote anytime for British withdrawal from the EU. Europhobia spread rapidly in England where a large number saw the Euro crisis as the proof that the European experiment has failed. Worse, the firebrand leader Nigel Farage of the extreme right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) stoked this feeling further.

Feeling cornered, David Cameron already gave a historic speech on 22 January 2013. There were two fundamental points that he had explicitly enunciated in that speech. One was his resolve to renegotiate several provisions in the existing European treaties, most notably the Lisbon Treaty which entered into force on 1 December 2009. The other was to ask the British electorate, on the basis of the results of these negotiations, to give a verdict in a referendum after the next general election in early 2017 as to whether they would still like to remain in the European Union.

With Jean-Claude Juncker taking over the helm of the European Commission, it is utterly futile for England to hope for any meaningful renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty. This explains Cameron’s “stupidity” to have a show at the latest EU summit. It is his last desperate act to score points back home. But in this process the credibility of David Cameron has reached a new low in Europe.

English apathy and ignorance about Continental Europe is best understood by the following comment of a Labour parliamentarian: “Everyone has relatives in the US and Canada. Most have no one in Europe except the dead of the two wars.”

But nothing can beat the callousness of the top English bureaucrats in London who originally scheduled Cameron’s historic speech on Europe on the 21 January 2013.

On that very day, France and Germany were planning to mark 50 years since a landmark treaty sealed their post-war reconciliation with a day of pomp, symbolism and celebration in Berlin, attended by all parliamentarians of both countries. On realising their grave mistake, bureaucrats in London hurriedly shifted the speech by one day.

(The writer is former dean and Emeritus professor of  Applied Mathematics, University of Twente, The Netherlands)


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