Saturday, 28 June 2014

Perverse Politics Playlist

David Cameron's Spotify playlist - curated by a team of special advisers with the occasional input from Sam- is a meticulous assembly of dour 80s fare spiced up with a measure of the inoffensively new, enough to show that he listens. Like his politics. But yesterday, flying out from Brussels after a humiliating tussle with European colleagues over the nomination of “arch-federalist” Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission President, I like to think he went off-piste like a Rolling Stone. You Can't Always Get What You Want- it chimes with the mood of a proud Prime Minister who's had his Etonian sense of entitlement chastened. Those stoical lyrics -made all the more mysterious by that opening choir- perhaps afforded Mr Cameron some solace as he drifted in the clouds, leaving behind that whited sepulcher.

Mr Juncker auditions for The Spitzenkandidaten Spring 
But if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need. And what if the Junckernaut is exactly what Britain needs? This isn't the schadenfreude of a Eurosceptic desiring to see Cameron's efforts to sell a reformed EU to the British public crash and burn (although I'm sure some rejoicing has been going on in the Tory -and Labour- backbenches). I like the European Union. There are a bunch of really strong economic and political reasons for liking the EU (an eloquent and considered case for the benefits of membership is provided in the UK government's own Balance of Competences review, much to the frustration of many within the government). But ultimately my reasons are personal. I like borderless travel, the Erasmus Programme, a common currency. I like feeling that I belong to the same community as Dreyer and Mann and Varda and Modigliani and Havel and Marx. I feel more European than I do 'English' (whatever that is) and I even think compromise and civil discussion are rather good principles for doing politics.

But nor do I think the process through which Jean-Claude Juncker was anointed Commission president was sufficiently robust. I found the outrage in the (mainly) German media at Cameron's campaign against the Spitzenkandidaten frankly unintelligible. Juncker may be many things but a saviour of democracy he ain't. When a mandate based on a minority of a minority of EU citizens voting for parties that belong to a pan-national parliamentary grouping few had heard of, which had previously selected Juncker as a candidate in a meeting last year that even fewer knew about, is described as the will of people I say dissolve them and elect another. The differences between British and German attitudes to the selection of Juncker may in part be indicative of the distinctions between Bundestag politics and Westminster politics. For historically understandable reasons the former has had its democracy guaranteed through institutional systemisation and privileges process over personality. I like Germans but on politics I feel that we are from different planets; their politics is even more incomprehensible to me than their language or their fondness for terrible police dramas.

Nevertheless, it would have been a disaster for Cameron had he gotten his way. What's happening is a perfect example of perverse politics. The Prime Minister played a high stakes game and waged all his Brussels political capital on blocking Juncker. Despite many private sympathies among this Northern, Eastern and Central European colleagues -the Spitzenkandidaten process is generally seen as a worrying power grab by a bolshie parliament- there was little energy for rocking the Lisbon boat. If Merkel & Co had blinked and given in to the shouty Brit (just as Major and Blair had succeeded in blocking commissioner candidates, Jean-Luc Dehaene and Guy Verhofstadt respectively) Cameron's cheeks would be merrily beaming but his room for manoeuvre would henceforth be diminished and bitterness at acquiescence to British arrogance would be the plat du jour. An alternative would be hastily drawn from other spent forces on the fringes of European politics. Pascal Lamy, former WTO DG and among the Blair worshipers of the French Socialists, was mentioned by Peter Mandelson as a preferable choice. But I don't see how Lamy, whose dire leadership during the paralytic Doha Round and on-the-record integrationalist fervour, would be anymore desirable than Juncker. Indeed, it is one of the very European ironies of this whole episode that in many ways Juncker and Cameron have much in common: both are man of the centre right with records of liberal stewardship of prosperous service-based economies and favour fiscal discipline and making the EU more competitive. As a grey politician who rose from humble origins -his dad was a steel worker- there's a whiff of John Major about Jean-Claude. Hardly the most dangerous man in Europe...

But Auntie Merks didn't blink, and it's telling that even left-wing countries that are not European People's Party fellow travellers fell into line (enjoyment in seeing a British PM tumble after all that bluster? Maybe. The absence of a French contribution to the presidency debate has been one of the more curious aspects of the Cameron Vs Juncker showdown, and the FT speculates that this may point to a withdrawal of French influence in Brussels). Now the ball is in Cameron's court. Literally minutes after Van Rompuy's predictable announcement of the Council's backing of Juncker 'friends of Britain' -Reinfeldt in Sweden, Rutte in the Netherlands, Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark, Stubb in Finland, and of course Merkel- lined up to console the wound-licking PM. Out of fear of further alienating Britain there will be special efforts, it has been promised, to cater for British interests. For the first time in EU history, there was the concession that ever closer union might not suit all states and a high profile job in the commission -possibly the much-coveted single market commissioner- is surely earmarked for a Brit. What, even with President Juncker? Indeed, as we've seen throughout the Eurozone crisis the real power is wielded not by President Barrosso -as cunning a fixer as he often was- but from Berlin. The consummate pragmatist, Jean-Claude will be wise to heed his brokers and offer a reform-shaped olive branch to London.

Could Cameron have hoped for anything better? Probably not. He wins capital in Brussels and plaudits at home for standing up to dem continentals. Merkel wins praise for enforcing due process and standing up to dem islanders. Juncker gets the keys to the commission wine cellar. Everybody wins in this most European of settlements. Which begs the question, is this what Cameron and his advisers had in mind all along. Did they get both what they wanted and needed? Berated for his lack of leadership, his confrontational approach and lack of understanding of EU negotiation, is Cameron actually a true Brussels genius, a master of the dark arts of the perverse politics playlist?

The perverse politics playlist (PPP) is no Oxford PPE; it's too simple and cynical to be accepted as a legitimate modus operandi for politics. It's more poker than chess; it's rationality is seemingly irrational. It's the double bluff of aiming for the centre in a penalty kick: it works, but no one wants to be seen doing it. Think of Nixon reaching out to China, Thatcher increasing the size of the welfare state: they get away with it in a way that their ideological opposite numbers wouldn't precisely because the act is so apparently contrary to their political instincts: it must be right because it isn't ideological. Tony Blair made a whole career out of it. 

PPP is particularly helpful for considering UK-EU relations. For instance, as a Europhile Brit which party should I vote for in the next election? Miliband has said that a referendum on EU membership would be unlikely under a future Labour government and most of the Eurosceptic ideologues are conservatives. But I'd be wrong to vote Labour. Despite Miliband's caution a referendum is something that the British public overwhelmingly want, and come election time next year he will have to concede them that. Although currently, according to YouGov, 36% would vote to leave (a Harris pole has this as much as 50%), were Cameron able to secure some meaningful reform the number would drop by at least 12% (Harris). YouGov identifies the crucial swing vote as being an undecided but Yes leaning 42% whom it calls 'Worried Nationalists'. This is the group that will be most powerfully convinced if they see Cameron fight the good fight in Brussels and come home with the spoils. They are the people who are delighted to see their Prime Minister as the lone ranger stalking the halls of Berlaymont, sticking it to the Goliath Juncker. Labour has intrinsically little traction with this group and Miliband would have to play a massive blinder if he were to claw back enough powers before a 2017 referendum. And if his Brussels skills are anything like his Westminster ones, I wouldn't hold my breath. Only Nixon could go to China and only a Eurosceptic Tory PM can make the case for Britain's membership to the EU. I don't like Conservatism, but in this instance more than my own political predilections are at stake: it's about my Europeanness. And in 2014 Britain that's a joyfully perverse thing to cling to.   

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