David Cameron’s gamble in opposing Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president has burnt bridges with allies and left him with few cards to play before a likely 2017 referendum on Britain leaving the EU, experts say.
With Juncker’s confirmation looking ever more likely, Cameron faces claims that he bungled the negotiations and that his fight to secure concessions on British membership of the European Union could now suffer.
The high stakes game of political poker is playing out against a backdrop of increasing euroscepticism in Britain, underlined by the UK Independence Party’s victory in European elections last month.
The issue is set to dominate a European Council meeting Thursday and Friday in Ypres and Brussels, featuring the leaders of all 28 EU member states.
“I think cool heads are required all round — Cameron needs to cool down and refrain from further threats, other leaders need to tone down the rhetoric on their side,” said Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.
“To put Cameron in an untenable position would be a very short-sighted move” ahead of the in-out referendum on EU membership which Cameron will call if his Conservatives win next year’s general election, he added.
For now, the situation is still generating plenty of debate, with even one-time British allies in Europe attacking Cameron’s approach.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, seen as close to several senior Tories, said Cameron had messed up the negotiations, according to a secretly taped, expletive-laden conversation printed in Poland’s Wprost magazine Monday.
Meanwhile, a European Parliament source spoke of Cameron having been “disowned”.
“He wanted to be able to announce: ‘Juncker is dead’ and he lost,” the source added, speaking anonymously.
Such comments seemed to bear out a complaint Monday by Chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne that “people are saying quite a lot of things privately that they are not saying publicly”.
Despite such condemnations, Cameron has still not given up his fight to block Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg who he sees as an arch-federalist and a roadblock to reform.
Cameron is calling for an unprecedented vote on the issue at the EU summit and has reportedly threatened to invoke the Luxembourg Compromise — an obscure, last-ditch mechanism to defer a decision.
Downing Street has not denied reports that Cameron could even campaign for Britain to leave the EU in a 2017 referendum.
“European leaders should reflect on the fact that the decisions the EU takes now and in the future… are likely to affect the views of British people in any referendum,” Cameron’s spokeswoman said Monday.
While that may be a risky bargaining chip, Cameron’s options look limited after losing the argument on Juncker.
“Such tactics are very high-risk — but with the Euro elite behaving just as arrogantly as ever, the prime minister urgently needs to find a way of being taken seriously,” an editorial in the Daily Mail said Tuesday.
How, then, can both sides find a way out?
In the short-term, Tilford suggests Cameron could accept Juncker’s nomination in return for Britain being handed one of the most powerful European Commission jobs this year.
“They’re going to have to find a quid pro quo for this to rescue Cameron in order to avoid domestic humiliation,” Tilford added.
But even if a face-saving way out of this row is found, it may exacerbate a longer term problem for him ahead of the likely referendum.
With UKIP a concern for Tory MPs eyeing the 2015 general election, Cameron is under pressure to deliver a promised renegotiation on Britain’s EU membership despite his weakened position.
But even such a renegotiation would not go far enough for many eurosceptics, who demand full withdrawal from Europe.
“Eurosceptics can never be placated,” said Robert Oulds, director of the arch-eurosceptic Bruges Group think-tank.
“David Cameron can think he will placate them by giving them some red meat but we will always be asking for more. It’s like a political insurgency.”