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Cameron has botched relations with old and new Europe, and now stands alone

June 25, 2014 6:42 PM
By Rafael Behr in The Guardian - Comment is Free

Much like Labour, the prime minister is guilty of neglecting eastern European countries, and the Sikorski tapes prove it

Gordon Brown used to infuriate other European heads of government in meetings of the European council by removing his headphones through which interpreters were relaying the comments of leaders he deemed insubstantial. David Cameron is hardly more subtle: he has been known to fiddle with his iPad in a manner that, according to diplomatic sources, demonstrates semi-detachment from the proceedings.

That will not be the case during discussions in Ypres later this week. The prime minister will have to be engaged because he is a lead actor in the principle drama of the occasion: Britain's determination to stand in lone defiance of Jean-Claude Juncker's nomination as president of the commission. Britain, it must be added, is far from alone in thinking Juncker is a bad choice, but has ended up adopting a sore thumb strategy: sticking out in hope of receiving palliative treatment on some other point of contention further down the line.

Much has been written about Cameron's mishandling of European negotiations in general and his studs-out tackling of the Juncker question in particular. The focus has rightly been on Downing Street's overreliance on Angela Merkel's goodwill and overestimation of her capacity to deliver deals that suit the peculiar demands of domestic British politics. But that dependency is also a function of Britain's failure to nurture alliances with other council members. It is worth considering the baskets that have been left empty because all of Cameron's diplomatic eggs were sent gift-wrapped to Berlin.

It is in that context that the fruity remarks of senior Polish politicians and officials about Cameron's strategy, secretly taped and leaked, are instructive. In essence - and with expletives deleted - it turns out that Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, thinks the prime minister has misplayed his European hand, alienating potential allies by indulging the irreconcilable Europhobes in his party and by permitting the routine depiction of migrants to the UK from eastern Europe as welfare-snaffling parasites. Governments usually take unkindly to that kind of characterisation of their expatriate citizens.

Sikorski's comments were, it appears, made before the current wrangling over commission nominations heated up and in the context of a specific disagreement on benefits policy. It isn't all that surprising that politicians in one country vent frustration with overseas counterparts when they think no one is listening. They then mostly get over it. Downing Street understands as much. A sweary rant by a disgruntled Pole is not a major diplomatic incident. More important is the longer-term failure of Britain to build robust alliances with former communist countries that joined the EU in 2004 and, in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, 2007. It is a missed opportunity for which blame cannot be heaped solely on the current government.

The potential was vast; Britain was an eager champion of enlargement. Partly the inclusion of eastern Europe was seen as an opportunity to shift the dynamic in the EU away from the constant pursuit of the closer integration of core countries towards something looser. The UK, unlike Germany, did not impose unilateral "transitional controls" on the free movement of workers from accession countries in the first round. Poles, Lithuanians and other migrants went to Germany, too. The key difference is that in Britain they became part of the regular workforce and paid taxes instead of joining a black market.

Eastwards enlargement in the first decade of the 21st century was one of the EU's greatest achievements, accelerating the transition from impoverished single-party authoritarian rule to relatively prosperous democracy. It was an heroic enactment of the union's founding principles driven in no small measure by the UK. It was not beyond the realm of imagination that Britain would go on to nurture relations with the new member states, fostering a coalition of reform-minded governments as a plausible counterweight to the old-fashioned integrationist and federalising Franco-German engine. After all, countries that were recently liberated from Soviet domination were pretty well inoculated against unnecessary surrenders of national sovereignty.

It didn't happen. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both neglected relations with the accession states; the old habit of seeing EU power relations as a game to be played between London, Paris and Berlin reasserted itself. New Labour pioneered the media management technique of treating European summits as a zero-sum game in which facile "red lines" were cooked up in advance and symbolic battles were won against an amorphous and mostly fictitious Brussels conspiracy. None of this was conducive to shifting the balance of power in the European council.

At first, the coalition government seemed alert to the recent neglect of relations with eastern Europe. In a speech flagged up as the exposition of a new foreign policy doctrine in July 2010, William Hague made the point explicit, arguing the need to "work with smaller member states" and "look further and wider" than France and Germany in European relations.

But such pragmatism was quickly overwhelmed by Cameron's need to manage restive backbenchers and by his ill-calibrated pursuit of defectors to Ukip. Indulging the Farageist conflation of Eastern migrants with scrounging and criminality was a very efficient way to undo any sense of gratitude or solidarity that was available in Bucharest or Warsaw.

And that is partly why, if there is indeed a vote on Juncker's nomination as commission president later this week, Cameron has absolutely no chance of forming the blocking minority he needs. It can't be done because the arithmetic isn't in Cameron's favour and the numbers don't add up because the diplomacy required to build them up wasn't done. Britain would have had a better chance of thwarting the candidate of what it sees as Bad Old Europe if it hadn't so rashly squandered its potential alliances with the New Europe.