Euro opportunism: Cameron no match for Sikorski

The Juncker/Sikorski episode shows how little Britain’s voice counts in Europe, how alone its government is and how powerless it is to resist the creation of a form of technocratic absolutism which treats national parliaments and electorates with contempt

No wonder Juncker's smirking
Tom Gallagher
On 26 June 2014 10:21

Historians are unlikely to agree on what kind of political animal the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski is. For thirty years, ever since arriving in Oxford as an exile from communist Poland in the early 1980s, he had championed economic and political liberalism and strong ties between Europe and the United States.

He was suspicious of a European Union based on centralized command and unaccountable networks of power that resembled too closely the democratic centralism of his old foe the Soviet Union. But in recent years he has shed his euroscepticism.

Mr Sikorski is now one of the boldest advocates of a swift transition to a proto-European state with fiscal and regulatory powers that eclipse those of its members.

Perhaps he sees this course as the least unpalatable on offer in order to preserve a free society in Europe facing revived authoritarianism and religious extremism close at hand. Obama’s USA has retreated into navel-gazing. Putin’s Russia appears ready to use classic divide and rule tactics to sow dissension in the EU.

Poland is the only former communist state to have done well economically out of EU enlargement. Perhaps Sikorksi dreams of his country, the 6th largest in population size of the 28 members, becoming a core EU state, wielding influence at the top table.  If this is the case, perhaps it is right to ditch a longstanding ally, Britain, and make common cause with Euro-Socialist and Euro-corporatist forces in Latin and Teutonic Europe who would have been very strange bedfellows for Sikorski in the past.

But many historians are likely to find it refreshing that an East European, holding high national office let rip at Britain even if it was in private and in the crude terms revealed in the leak carried by a Polish magazine.

While ostensibly guided by the desire to uphold the freedom of smaller countries sandwiched between Germany and Russia, Britain’s interventions in East European affairs have often been incoherent, resulting in outcomes completely at odds with the original purpose. Sikorski has vowed stern action against whoever bugged his conversation with a close political colleague.

But the revelations about his exasperation with Prime Minister David Cameron’s approach to European matters are likely to be seen as timely and correct in many EU quarters perhaps still suspicious about Sikorski’s Atlanticist background.

Therefore, his barely-concealed hopes of becoming the next EU foreign policy chief, by next autumn, have probably been boosted by this Anglo-Polish bust-up.

Sikorski lashed out at Cameron for not really knowing what he wanted in Europe, for  launching half-baked initiatives  in order to appease domestic critics, and for chasing after unrealistic hopes of ‘reform’ in a clumsy manner.

These remarks were made in April before the spotlight fell on Cameron’s outspoken opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker, a veteran of the EU establishment, becoming President of the European Commission. Cameron was engaged in a quixotic attempt to get the European Court of Justice to block the imposition of a cross-jurisdiction European financial tax.

The Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) heavily penalises the British financial sector. It is a barely-concealed attempt by the common front of European political families in the Brussels parliament to divert responsibility from the EU decision-makers for the 5-year long financial crisis and blame it on Anglo-Saxon ‘freebooters’.

The ultra-Europhile ECJ of course threw out the British case and for the past three weeks Cameron has been engaging in a desperate populist campaign of his own to block the appointment of the arch-federalist Juncker to run the sprawling EU bureaucracy for the next five years.

Juncker has a dismal track-record even by the standards of top EU decision-makers. As the long-term head of the EU Council of finance ministers (Ecofin), he had a lazy approach to the looming financial crisis across the Eurozone, dismissing it as a problem confined to a few secondary countries long after its scale was apparent.

This epicurean Luxembourgois politician, blurted out at one of the worst points of the Greek financial emergency:

‘It was obvious that one day Greece would have to face these kind of problems,   and I knew that problems would arise because we -- the French, the Germans, ECB   President Trichet, the Commission and myself -- had been discussing the perspectives of what was not at that time known as so-called Greek crisis….The Greek crisis could have been avoided, but not starting last year,   starting two or three decades ago’.

Such an admission of negligence would have hastened the destruction of a political career in any democratic system where politicians face accountability  before an electorate. But Juncker ‘s admission that he allowed the financial crisis to build on his watch is no impediment to his further rise.

The European Parliament, packed with placemen elected on the list system, who have little or no connection with real groups of constituents, now believes it can impose this tarnished political figure in the most high-profile EU job.

The left and centre-right blocs have closed ranks behind him. The German media from the populist Bild to more august titles like Der Spiegel, insist that only Juncker’s selection can prevent the revival of damaging national egotism. 

Federalists insist that the EU has just experienced a genuine Europe-wide election. Few Europeans have ever heard of the bon vivant from Luxemburg. But he is the choice of the European demos. Why? Because its will is supposedly enshrined in the legislature shared between Brussels and Strasbourg which now enjoys a degree of co-responsibility over who gets the most senior European posts.

So David Cameron has unleashed a European storm of righteous indignation. Britain is seen as embodying obscurantist nation-state sentiment in what is still the age of ‘One Europe’ despite all the policy failures. If he is surprised and shaken he shouldn’t be.

He had no alternative candidate for Juncker who could enjoy support among Euro pragmatists as opposed to hard-core ideologues. The other choices are just as pro-integration as Juncker if not more so.

He failed to spell out why Juncker’s elevation was wrong and he failed to dispel the notion that this was a melodrama he had concocted in order to try and ward off Eurosceptics who had just enjoyed unprecedented electoral success at home.

This episode shows how little Britain’s voice counts in Europe, how alone its government is and how powerless it is to resist the creation of a form of technocratic absolutism which treats national parliaments and electorates with contempt.

It will be ironic if Cameron’s legacy on the European front is to fire up the engines for the integration train on the continent while giving his domestic opponents plenty of opportunity to show that he is proving a menace when it comes to defending Britain’s interests in an increasingly hostile European theatre.

It would not be surprising if Sikorski’s damning views of Cameron were soon being echoed by people in his own party who fear that his blunders will spell defeat in 2015 even when up against the hapless Ed Miliband.

Manchester University Press is publishing Tom Gallagher’s book Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union this autumn

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