David Cameron has been trying to look on the bright side after failing to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming president of the European Commission. And while that might look like the Prime Minister trying to spin something out of an abject failure, there really is a silver lining to this appointment for Britain, even though you have to look quite hard for it.
The Commission president is indeed important, particularly given his role in determining the EU executive’s policy agenda – in practice, no policy can be proposed without his agreement. He also has control over the assigning of Commission portfolios, an argument perhaps against the Prime Minister’s decision to fight Juncker until the bitter end.
But around matters of treaty change, the balance of powers, boosting the role of national parliaments and keeping the Single Market rather than the euro at the heart of the EU, the Commission president’s role is rather subjugated to that of the Council. Such matters of institutional importance are ultimately topics of discussion between national leaders, hence the UK Government’s push to tout its EU reform agenda across national capitals rather than simply in Brussels.
But even on issues of policy, the general mood of the Council is what drives the Commission president’s agenda. To that end, David Cameron should feel heartened by the words of some of those leaders this weeek. People like Finland’s PM Alex Stubb, one of the EU’s most influential new playmakers, spoke of the need to build bridges and declared his support for Cameron’s economic reform agenda for Europe. Dutch leader Mark Rutte, widely seen to have abandoned the UK in its fight against Juncker, pledged concessions to Cameron in the Commission’s work programme.
If the downside of continental Europe’s overriding commitment to consensus has been the European Parliament’s successful ‘spitzenkandidaten’ power grab, the upside is their desire to emerge still united. Placation and horsetrading by any other name. That unity now looks set to manifest itself in the EU’s policy priorities for the years ahead, to the benefit of the UK and to the likely displeasure of Italy and France. It is Matteo Renzi and Francois Hollande who will ultimately end up the odd men out over their demands for further budgetary flexibility, rather than David Cameron.
Perhaps the lesson that the UK should most take home from this protracted debacle however, is that Germany –while important- cannot be the sole crutch upon which it leans for delivery of its EU reform agenda. Angela Merkel was as much taken by surprise over the success of Spitzenkandidaten as anyone else. Her waiting game allowed others to decide the narrative over the Commission presidency. Perhaps if the ‘reformist’ trio of Rutte, [Fredrik] Reinfeldt and Cameron had gotten their act together sooner, it would have been their demands Merkel felt obliged to give in to instead.
The centre-left cohort in Europe led by Renzi who want to ‘change the economic paradigm’ coming out of Brussels provides a natural point around which the more liberal, open and competitiveness-minded EU countries can coalesce to resist. This provides an opportunity for David Cameron to push forward his vision for Europe as outlined in the now-infamous Bloomberg speech.
Those who appear to already be feeling guilty for leaving David Cameron in the lurch –or indeed just guilty at having rolled over to the European Parliament- have effectively given him an IOU [or several] to collect. In that sense, perhaps a defeat on Juncker is a better outcome than a messy victory in the long term. Ensuring those favours are called in on the right policy battles going forward will be crucial to determining the UK’s future in the EU.
The battle over the Commission presidency should not automatically be framed as a foreshadowing of subsequent defeats in Europe, if only because it was always about personality and process rather than issues perceived as being more important over policy and substance. The rest of the EU never considered this one which could put Britain’s membership at risk. They will take Cameron a bit more seriously next time.
Allie Renison is Head of Europe and Trade Policy at the Institute of Directors.