The U.K. is losing friends in Brussels just as Prime Minister David Cameron most needs to influence people.
As the European Union’s top posts come up for grabs, the British aren’t in the running. Instead, the U.K.’s hold on the EU foreign affairs portfolio is loosening, its most prominent European lawmaker is leaving and as for the prospect of Britain bagging the job of European Commission president -- forget it.
“You might as well have a clause which says ‘no Brits may apply,’” Peter Ludlow, a Brussels-based historian and author of “The Making of the New Europe,” said of the president’s post. “Quite simply, they would not be accepted.”
With the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party forecast to win this week’s European elections and a referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the EU penciled in for 2017, Britain’s leverage in the world’s largest economic bloc has never looked so puny.
That lack of clout undermines Cameron’s search for allies to help him repatriate powers from Brussels, a pledge he says will convince voters to opt to stay in the EU, according to Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform. British influence threatens to weaken still further as high-profile Britons in Brussels pack their bags without anyone of caliber to replace them, Grant said in an interview.
“If we send medium-to-lightweight politicians to Brussels, then obviously they’re not going to get good, influential jobs,” said Grant, a biographer of Jacques Delors, commission president from 1985 to 1995. “If you don’t have a good communicator who commands respect, then it will be harder to win a referendum campaign for staying in.”
The changing of the guard in the EU’s decision-making bodies starts with elections to the 751-seat European Parliament on May 22-25, continues with the replacement of the 28-strong team that heads the Commission -- the bloc’s executive agency, antitrust enforcer and trade negotiator all in one -- and concludes with the appointment of a new EU President at the end of the year.
“Britain will maximize its position and influence if we achieve a reformed Europe,” Cameron told BBC radio this morning. “We want our membership of this organization to be about cooperation between member states, not the building of a superstate.”
None of the top ten candidates for European Commission President listed by bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc is British. The only Briton listed is Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, at odds of 500-to-one, behind Austria’s Eurovision winner, Conchita Wurst.
The U.K.’s current commissioner is Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief who gained prominence leading the bloc’s work from north Africa to Kosovo, as an envoy to Ukraine and in nuclear talks with Iran.
With the possibility that the U.K. could vote to leave the EU before the next commission’s term expires in 2019, there’s no guarantee the bloc’s other member governments will allow the U.K. to get such a senior role again.
The U.K.’s arm’s-length stance on Europe can make other EU countries reluctant to give Britons influential jobs, said Sharon Bowles, the outgoing chairwoman of the Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee.
Over the past five years, Bowles helped steer through legislation in response to the debt crisis on matters from bankers’ bonus curbs to bank capital requirements and national debt and deficit control. Like Ashton, she is leaving her post; her term as chairwoman is up and she decided not to stand again.
When she was first mooted for the economics position in 2009, “everybody was busy saying ‘Anybody but a Brit,’” Bowles, a member of Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partner, said in a telephone interview. “I personify the fact that the best way for the U.K. to get things that it wants and needs in Europe is by being European.”
Whereas past U.K. governments have chosen commissioners such as Peter Mandelson, a former trade minister in Tony Blair’s cabinet, and Chris Patten, a Conservative Party chairman and the last Governor of Hong Kong, speculation now centers on Conservative members of the U.K. parliament Andrew Lansley, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson or Michael Fallon.
France, by contrast, may field as its commissioner a former finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, while Finland may despatch the prime minister, Jyrki Katainen, according to Grant. Sweden’s former prime minister, Carl Bildt, is also in the running for Ashton’s job.
As the EU’s members jostle for posts, Cameron wants fellow leaders to agree to his plans to bolster nations’ powers over the commission, reduce EU bureaucracy, lessen the bloc’s reach into national law and ensure a level playing-field for EU countries outside the euro area such as his own. While Angela Merkel of Germany has hinted she might be sympathetic to some of his demands, no government has agreed to anything concrete.
Cameron committed an act of self-isolation at the height of the euro-area debt crisis in December 2011 by attempting to veto new German-inspired budget-deficit rules, only to look on helplessly when the rest of the EU went ahead with them.
More recently, in January he riled Poland and other potential allies in central and eastern Europe by suggesting the U.K. would curb benefits for citizens of those countries.
U.K. Europe Minister David Lidington, the eighth person to hold the post in 10 years, said that his government’s drive to reform the EU is winning new allies.
Worst Possible Moment
“On a great deal of what we want to do there’s a recognition that this is in everybody’s common interest,” he said in a May 13 interview in Brussels. “We’re not carving out some specific new self-interested wish-list.”
For the French government, now is the worst possible moment to open up debate about changing treaties to repatriate powers, a person familiar with President Francois Hollande’s position on the matter said. While the French government wants the U.K. to stay in the EU, it sees a danger that Cameron could leave the bloc by accident, the official said on condition of anonymity because the EU-level negotiations are private.
“How do you convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle?” EU President Herman Van Rompuy said in a speech last year.
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