The Last Post in Europe – (blog)

The Menin Gate in Ypres serves as a sombre monument to the high principles that lay behind the foundation of the European Union

EU leaders meeting in the Flanders town of Ypres this week are about to give the most important job in Brussels to someone they know isn’t up to it – largely to spite David Cameron. Remember this episode the next time you hear claims about “reforming” the EU.

I haven’t met one leading European politician or official who thinks that Jean-Claude Juncker (sacked as prime minister of Luxembourg at the end of last year) is the best man for the job. Abrupt and abrasive, he left office following a scandal that turned on his inability to get on with Luxembourg’s intelligence services. Even his closest friends don’t argue that he is a natural administrator. Indeed, when he put himself forward for the Commission job, he wasn’t expecting to get it. The assumption was that the Socialists would win the largest number of MEPs and claim the Commission presidency, allowing Juncker to be compensated with the office he really craved, namely Herman Van Rompuy’s post as president of the European Council. The two jobs are comparable in terms of prestige and perks – the net income is around four times what a national prime minister gets – but the Council job doesn’t involve managing a massive bureaucracy.

Juncker rose to prominence by chairing the group of Eurozone states. Given the way that worked out, you might not think it much of a recommendation. Before every bail‑out, Luxembourg’s premier would pop up to insist that there was no problem, that the banks were rock solid. “When it gets serious,” he explained, “you have to lie.”

Plenty of EU leaders lie to their electorates about European integration, of course. A whole vocabulary has grown up in Brussels to excuse the phenomenon: “showing leadership”, “displaying maturity”, etc. But Juncker, representing an electorate no larger than Sheffield city council’s, hasn’t had to learn to be subtle about it. During the French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitution, he cheerfully announced: “If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No we will say ‘we continue.” Nor is it, by any stretch of the imagination, Luxembourg’s turn to get the top slot. There have been 12 presidents of the European Commission, and two have already come from the Grand Duchy, which accounts for just 0.1 per cent of the EU’s population.

As Brussels wags point out, Juncker has only one key recommendation for the job: like so many Commissioners, including our own Chris Patten and Neil Kinnock, he has just been rejected by his voters. Why, then, are the 28 leaders about to elevate a man whom many of them disdain, and a fair few despise? In theory, it’s because Juncker was the designated “leading candidate” of the faction that won the largest number of seats at last month’s European election, the European People’s Party.

In reality, no one believes such piffle. There were 28 separate national campaigns, each fought on its own issues. It’s hard to imagine a single voter in Europe saying: “I had planned to vote for Guy Verhofstadt, the Liberal leader, but that Juncker fellow really impressed me in the debates.”

Immediately after the election, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, of which I am secretary-general, commissioned a major poll of 12,000 voters across the EU. The survey found that 91.8 per cent of people had no idea who Jean-Claude Juncker was, and 91.2 per cent could not name a single one of the pan-European parties now laying claim to their ballots.

Even when the system was explained to them, only 10.1 per cent of respondents thought that the president of the European Commission should be chosen in this fashion. Jean-Claude Juncker’s supposed mandate, in other words, has no basis either in law or in public opinion. Even the most committed Euro-integrationists – even The Economist, even Nick Clegg – admit as much. So why are EU premiers so keen on him?

There are two possible answers. One is that Continental leaders are venting their anger at Britain. Several of them, we keep being assured by insiders, had been looking for a way to drop Juncker quietly– probably by offering him the Council job he had wanted all along – but the British PM’s public opposition made them swing behind him. Angela Merkel, who is known to have an especially low opinion of the Luxembourger, came out unequivocally for him the moment the German press accused her of caving in to the British, and similar pressures apply elsewhere. As Werner Faymann, the chancellor of Austria, put it: “Cameron should be outvoted by a qualified majority. We cannot allow a single person to dictate to us.”

The alternative explanation is that Britain no longer counts for anything in Europe’s counsels. As a Commission official told this newspaper last month: “We don’t include the UK in our plans any more. We assume you’re leaving the EU.” A federalist majority among the member states, backed by an even more federalist majority among MEPs, was always going to appoint a Euro-fanatical Commission president, and Juncker is certainly that, having campaigned for a common European citizenship with reciprocal voting rights at national elections, pan-EU wage fixing, a merger of the national diplomatic services and tax harmonisation.

Either way, the implications are vast. An opinion poll in yesterday’s Observer showed that Britain would vote to leave the EU on the current terms, though people might be persuaded to stay in if a substantially better deal were on offer. But Juncker’s appointment would show that no such deal could be reached. If we can’t block one federalist candidate, in contravention of the long-established understanding that the president of the European Commission should acceptable to the four largest member governments, then there is plainly no hope of getting new terms on trade, agriculture, fisheries, the budget, civil law, the asphyxiation of the City or anything else.

Which may explain why David Cameron has given up even asking for such terms. Three years ago, he was talking optimistically about taking back social and employment policy. Seventeen months ago, in his Bloomberg speech, he was still holding out the prospect of significant unilateral repatriations of power. Now all that has been dropped, and he has produced a list of seven paltry changes, few of which would require an intergovernmental conference, and all of which have been enthusiastically endorsed by Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke on grounds that they won’t change anything.

Inexplicably, British officials are seeking milk-and-water changes to the entire EU structure, instead of grabbing at the special status that Euro-federalists keep offering us. Jacques Delors wants Britain to enjoy free trade and intergovernmental cooperation with the EU, rather than political amalgamation. He calls the idea “privileged partnership”. The Union of European Federalists prefers the name “associate status”. Juncker himself has indicated that Britain has a separate political vocation, and insists on the universal applicability only of the four freedoms of the single market: free movement, that is, of goods, services, labour and capital.

If David Cameron were to secure such a status – a kind of European Free Trade Association (EFTA)-plus deal – he would, according to the polls, be satisfying 70 to 80 per cent of us. I know that Sir Humphrey in Brussels, who confuses his own presence at the table with the national interest, is dead set against any kind of special status for Britain. But it’s Sir Humphrey’s unremittingly duff advice that has brought the UK to its present impotence.

There is a certain aptness in Juncker’s elevation being decided at Ypres, where EU leaders are gathering for a centenary commemoration of the First World War. The lines of crosses remind us that the European ideal was originally noble, even sublime. But the generation of idealists has been replaced by a generation of employees.

We can argue about whether the EU was a cause or a consequence of peace in Europe: I am in the latter camp, believing that the EU came about because of the defeat of fascism, the spread of democracy and the security of Nato. But, whatever its founding impulses, it has now become a handy way for some very lucky people to make a good living. This summit, like most EU summits, will be dominated by haggling over jobs for the boys – the boys, obviously, being the Eurocrats, not the 19 million unemployed across Juncker’s Eurozone.

While he is there, the PM might care to look at how many Indian names there are carved on the Menin Gate, the memorial to 55,000 soldiers whose graves are unknown. He might reflect on the ties that link this country to common law, English-speaking markets across the oceans. He might ponder the fact that, as EFTA moves toward a free trade agreement with India, the EU has shelved its trade talks with that rising giant. He might contemplate the fact that every continent on the planet is now growing economically except Europe.

We are in the wrong place. We need to rediscover the global vocation that once lifted this nation to global pre‑eminence. David Cameron has given reform his best shot, honestly and honourably, but it hasn’t worked. The other states aren’t interested. It’s time to try something else. There’s a world across the oceans.

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The Last Post in Europe – (blog)

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