The appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European commission confirms what most UK Eurosceptics have long thought: the EU is not suddenly moving the UK’s way.
We do not have much influence or leverage in resisting the federal direction of the project and the centralising power of the commission. David Cameron has won some credit from his own party for trying. There is a kind of relief that the prime minister highlighted the problem of the EU, ignoring the disillusion and anger of the Euro elections, which was visible in the low turnout and the surge in votes for anti-EU parties.
On the continent the main federalist parties stated who their candidate for commission president was, and these candidates appeared at public meetings. It is a sign of how distant UK political parties are from euro-area politics that neither the Conservatives nor Ukip, who between them got over half the vote, accepted the idea of indirect candidates for the presidency. Labour, still affiliated to a federalist party grouping, made sure its presidential candidate came nowhere near the UK and avoided all comment or mention of him.
So where does Juncker’s appointment leave Mr Cameron’s negotiating strategy if he wins the 2015 general election? And where does it leave the UK’s relations with the EU in the months ahead?
There will be some on the continent who will worry that the UK is being pushed out by a public rejection of its wish to reform. There will be many others who will simply say that the UK either has to go along with the majority view or leave. In the UK, many Eurosceptics of the Ukip tendency will welcome a hardening of continental attitudes after this spat, and believe it makes our exit more likely.
In practice, the Juncker decision will make little difference to the attitude of the important member states come May 2015 if the UK starts its negotiations. The president of the commission is important for day-to-day business and the normal EU centralising agenda. But when it comes to something as big and as unusual as a new relationship for the UK outside the euro, and outside the treaty commitments and acts of common government that apply to the rest, the other member states matter more than the commission. The commission will have to be professional about handling the UK negotiations whatever its personal feelings, as it will be in the interests of the whole EU that some way is found for the UK to trade and be friends with the rest without substantial disruption.
The treatment of the UK over the commission appointment is likely to make the UK ask for more in the negotiations, as it will act as a warning over how large the gulf is between the UK’s vision of the EU as a trading club with some political cooperation and the view of many of the rest of the member states of an evolving “United States of Europe”. The defining decision that confirmed the UK’s different approach happened under the last Labour government, which wisely avoided asking UK voters to join the euro. (They would not, in any case, have agreed to do so.) Events surrounding the euro since have shown that this was a good call for both the UK and the euro area. Had the UK been in the euro in 2009-11, it would probably have taken the whole currency down with its large banks.
Any future UK government has to hammer out a new relationship. It is the one member of the EU that will not join the euro. As the latter requires more and more centralised control and government, the UK will need a new relationship that preserves trade and friendship but removes us from much of the common government that now characterises the new-model EU. This week’s appointment makes that necessity starker, and shows how big is the task that lies ahead.
John Redwood MP is member of parliament for Wokingham and chair of the Conservative economic affairs committee.