In October 1962 the world was on the brink of nuclear war. Despite being the two most powerful leaders in the world the American and Soviet leaders could not communicate directly. Relying heavily on back channels, both sides never had a clear picture of what the opponent’s position really was. Luckily crisis was averted and a direct hotline was established between the White House and the Kremlin. Now Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel are fighting it out on the front pages over the appointment of the next president of the EU Commission, and communications seem to be mangled. Jean-Claude Juncker may not be armed with a nuclear warhead but there could certainly be some fairly toxic fallout from the argument.
Prior to the EU parliamentary elections the European Peoples’ Party appointed Juncker as their Spitzenkandidaten and promised that if they secured the most seats in the election, he would become the new president of the commission. Cameron disagrees strongly and argues that the president should be chosen by leaders of EU member states, as used to happen.
Cameron has picked the dispute over the EU Commission presidency to show Britain’s euro-sceptics that he can and will stand up to “Brussels”. Juncker is an outspoken supporter of an ever closer union. At last Wednesday’s PMQs Cameron told the House of Commons: “I do not mind how many people on the European Council disagree with me; I will fight this right to the very end.”
Stopping Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming President of the Commission has become a sport for German Chancellors and the inhabitants of Number 10. Blair did it twice. Yet, the UK PM has made a huge amount of noise about this.
Merkel has tried to balance her ambition to keep Britain in the union and appease domestic opinion which demands her support for Juncker. Crucially Merkel and Hollande have not used up lots of political capital in this so far. She has herself caused doubt about Juncker by dropping early hints that other candidates could be considered. Indeed Britain is not the only country opposing Juncker, though it has used up a lot of political capital.
Clashes at the G7 summit and press conferences have shown how the sides have failed to communicate and have resorted to take the fighting in public. Cameron wants Britain to stay in the EU, but may be leaving an open goal for UKIP at home and alienating potential allies abroad. Most importantly for British business it means it will be harder for Cameron to now renegotiate the Treaty, something which he has said that he will do and then support staying in the EU in a British referendum.
The two leaders should discuss the issue directly, not take pot-shots at each other in the media and rely on back-channel messaging. Scoring cheap political points can prove costly in the end, both for the European Union and for Britain. Diplomacy doesn’t seem to have moved on from 1962.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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