Britain has belonged to the European Union and its predecessors for 42 years but apparently some of our political leaders still have little understanding of how it works. Recently, Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary, and Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, have both shown their ignorance over the realities of the EU. They’ve both done so by complaining about the possibility of Jean-Claude Juncker, formerly Luxembourg’s prime minister, becoming President of the European Commission in the face of David Cameron’s ferocious opposition to him.
According to Nicholas Watt in the Guardian of 23 June, Mr Duncan-Smith, former Conservative party leader, said the previous day:
“If they give Jean-Claude Juncker a job this is like literally [sic] flicking two fingers at the rest of Europe and saying to all the people out there, ‘We know that you voted the way you did but you are wrong and we are just going to show you how wrong you are by carrying on as though nothing happened.”
Mr Duncan-Smith evidently thinks the majority of EU voters voted to reject Mr Juncker for Commission President. But the reality is, Mr Juncker was the preferred candidate of the EPP – the main centre-right group in the EU parliament – that won the most seats in the May elections. So if the EU elections are any guide (which is debatable), Mr Juncker has a better claim on the job than anyone else.
Meanwhile, Mr Alexander, who according to Mr Watt “has instructed Labour MEPs not to support Juncker” (even if he’s unanimously nominated for the job by all the EU governments?), said:
“There can be no excuses. David Cameron has a clear mandate from political parties here in the UK – including Labour – to build consensus across Europe for an alternative candidate for president of the commission.”
It’s meaningless to suggest, as Mr Alexander seemed to do, that the UK electorate voted against Mr Juncker in May. Before the 2010 UK election, Mr Cameron made an eccentric and ill-judged decision to pull the UK Conservative party out of the EPP group, which contains its main natural allies in Europe, instead forming a new and hopefully more Euro-sceptic group so now there’s now no UK party in the EPP group. This means no UK voter could have voted for or against Juncker for the Commission Presidency. And when Mr Alexander refers to Mr Cameron’s “clear mandate” to oppose to Mr Juncker what is he referring to? If all he means is that he, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have unaccountably agreed to support Cameron’s reckless campaign against Juncker, that’s hardly a ‘mandate’ but more of a collective misjudgement.
Messrs Duncan-Smith and Alexander imply, equally bizarrely, that the European parliamentary elections equated to elections for the Commission Presidency. In the EU, the European Council of Ministers – i.e. the EU heads of government – has to nominate its preferred candidate for the Commission Presidency: he or she is then ‘elected’ (or rejected) by the European parliament. Of course, when deciding whom to nominate, the EU governments will take into account the prevailing opinion in the EU parliament – including which is the biggest group that supports Mr Juncker for Commission President. If Mr Cameron somehow persuades his fellow members of the Council of Ministers to nominate a different candidate, the EU parliament might well refuse to elect him or her, and go on rejecting the EU governments’ nominees until they consent to nominate Mr Juncker. But the idea that by electing MEPs of any UK party to the EU parliament, British voters were expressing an opinion about Mr Juncker’s suitability for the Commission Presidency is frankly fatuous. Most UK voters have anyway never heard of him.
Since the UK is unrepresented in the EPP group which ‘won’ the EU elections, UK MEPs will have little or no say in their parliament’s decision whether to elect or reject the eventual nominee of the EU governments for Commission President. So much for David Cameron’s decision to pull his party out of the EPP group that will probably have the last word.
Everyone claims to want the new Commission President to be “a reformer”, but there is no consensus in Britain about which specific EU reforms we want. In the name of euphemistically termed “flexible labour laws”, UK Tories want to weaken or abolish EU powers to regulate employees’ work conditions throughout the Union. This essentially means that they resent EU constraints on their ability to make UK workers work longer hours, for lower rates of pay, with fewer rights to maternity and paternity leave and other holidays, and generally in worse conditions than those in more enlightened parts of Europe. This should be one of Cameron’s ‘reforms’ that Labour will never support. Nor should Labour support the Tories’ demand for limits on the free movement of people within the EU, or for abandoning the principle that all EU citizens, in whichever EU country they live, work or visit, have an equal entitlement to local health and other benefits.
We all favour ‘reform’, but one party’s reforms are another’s erosion of basic EU principles. Labour should never compromise its European credentials in a doomed attempt to appease the Euro-sceptics of the Murdoch press and the wilder reaches of the Conservative back benches.
Our prime minister has embarked on another of his wild gambles. If he pulls it off and our partner governments are blackmailed into dispensing with Mr Juncker’s services, David Cameron’s and other Tories’ triumphalist gloating will be hard to endure. And Britain will incur the odium of widespread opinion throughout the EU for depriving them of their favoured candidate.
If he fails, Britain will have to cope for five years or more with a powerful President of the Commission who’ll bear an entirely understandable grudge against all three of the UK’s political parties for having tried so hard to prevent him from being selected for the job. It’s a lose-lose situation, as usual.