By Will Rose, Transatlantic Community Analyst
Just two days shy of the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, late last month the leaders of the European Union’s 28 member states met in Ypres, Belgium – the site of the first full-scale chlorine gas attacks during WWI – to reaffirm their solidarity. At the conclusion of the summit, somewhat less in the spirit of harmony, EU leaders announced the much-anticipated selection of a nominee for the presidency of the European Commission. In an unprecedented move, the European Council voted by qualified majority instead of deciding by consensus, as has been done in the past. The 28-person body, composed of the heads of all EU member states, decided overwhelmingly to nominate former Luxembourgish Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as the next Commission president. The only dissenting votes came from British Prime Minister David Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who have both expressed concerns about transgressing the bounds of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. The vote was a resounding defeat for Cameron in particular, who had been campaigning against Juncker’s nomination since the European elections in May.
The European People’s Party (EPP) was the most successful grouping in the European elections, and as the party’s declared choice for Commission president, Juncker argued that he had a mandate for the presidency. However, Cameron, with the support of all major British political parties, countered that Juncker’s presidency would be a mistake as it would move the EU toward a closer political union; that is, toward a federalist system. In early June, Cameron attended a summit along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to discuss finding an alternate candidate. Initially, the Swedish and Dutch Prime Ministers united with Cameron to oppose Juncker’s appointment, but they both announced shortly before the European Council vote that they had switched their positions – leaving Cameron isolated in opposition.
While this latest scuffle over the next Commission president underlines British dissatisfaction with the EU, the UK has a long history of distancing itself from European integration. Britain did not take part in the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and declined to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. A change of heart four years later was rebuffed twice by French President Charles de Gaulle, who viewed Britain as an insular nation with exceedingly close ties to the United States. It was only in 1973, after de Gaulle left office, that Britain was able to join the EEC – the forerunner of the EU. In 1975, a referendum on British membership in the EEC marked the high point of British enthusiasm for the European project; those in favor, supported by all major British parties and newspapers, outstripped those opposed by a factor of two to one.
In the almost forty years since, Britain has maintained a somewhat wary stance toward the EU by, among other things, refusing to join the common currency and receiving opt-outs on aspects of the Lisbon Treaty. The Juncker debate is also not the first time that a British Prime Minister opposed a Commission president nominee seen as too federalist: in 1994, John Major vetoed the candidacy of Jean-Luc Dehaene and in 2004 Tony Blair did the same to that of Guy Verhofstadt. However, the current era of euroskepticism in Britain started in 2011 when, in the midst of the Eurozone Crisis, Cameron vetoed an EU treaty on new budget rules because he was dissatisfied with what he deemed were insufficient exemptions for the UK. Two years later, Cameron promised a referendum on continued British membership in the EU. The referendum is not scheduled to take place until the end of 2017, but Cameron’s humiliating defeat over Juncker’s presidency makes it less likely that the British prime minister will be able to use the threat of a UK withdrawal to reform the EU.
In line with this history of British euroskepticism, the fight over Juncker’s appointment was fundamentally about the future form of the European Union. As the prime minister of Luxembourg for almost two decades, Juncker is a European insider well-known for viewing continued integration as the proper path for the EU. His opponents fear that he will aid the erosion of national sovereignty in favor of concentrating power in Brussels. This is not an unwarranted fear, but the EU’s most monumental achievement to date – monetary union – necessarily transfers authority to supranational bodies and deprives national leaders of power over critical aspects of their domestic economies. Juncker will likely push for deeper European integration in this and other important areas. At the recent summit, the vast majority of EU leaders agreed – deeper union is the key to a peaceful and prosperous Europe.
Britain’s euroskeptic worldview emphasizes an exceptional place for the UK that no longer corresponds to present European and global realities. While the UK is one of the largest and most prosperous EU member states, it cannot halt the deepening European project; and it is clear that if the UK were to leave the union it would lead to more costs than benefits. Among others, Britain’s biggest industry group – the Confederation of British Industry – recently asserted that a withdrawal from the EU would be disastrous for companies and workers in the UK. Though British leaders have done their best to keep Europe at length, forty years of integration and a more global economy have made the future of Europe crucial to the future of Britain. While Cameron’s actions are well-received at home, attempting to hold the EU hostage is not conducive to pushing ahead with reforms that are in the EU’s, and Britain’s, interests.