Cameron defeat will drive Britain, EU further apart

Courtesy of the Associated Press

(c) 2014, Bloomberg News.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is steeling himself for a defeat at this week's summit of European Union leaders in Ypres. Until recently, he expected to get his way over blocking the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the next head of the European Commission. He dug himself in on that assumption. He now seems likely to be outvoted.

Beyond the political embarrassment, here's why it matters: If the Tories win the next election, Cameron has promised Britain a vote on whether to stay in the EU. The quarrel over Juncker will be long past by then, but it will stand as a memorable instance of British frustration with the European project. Conceivably, it could make the difference in the referendum.

Which only underlines how unwise Cameron was to make the appointment such a big deal. In case you've forgotten (and it's a forgivable error), he wants Britain to stay in the EU, though on new terms. Now his failed maneuverings over Juncker will just confirm that Europe isn't much interested in what Britain wants, proving Cameron's impotence and how little British preferences count.

The Juncker affair is only partly Cameron's fault. Although he picks the wrong fights and his manner is grating, there's a deeper problem that the other EU governments seem incapable of recognizing. Juncker illustrates it perfectly. Cameron was tactically inept, but he's right on the merits of the appointment: Juncker's accession would move the EU two strides further in the wrong direction.

First, Juncker is a federalist, a believer in the "ever closer union" inscribed in EU treaties. As head of the European Commission — the union's powerful executive branch — he'll be in a good spot to advance that purpose. He'll be deaf to the idea that Europe needs more "subsidiarity" (the principle that powers that don't need to be centralized shouldn't be) and hence to Britain's main preoccupation.

Second, his appointment would be a coup for the European Parliament. Under current rules, national governments decide who leads the commission, and the understanding has been that this choice is made by consensus (that is, unanimously). The parliament, which wants Juncker, has no more than an advisory role. Yet it's being allowed to insist on Juncker, despite the misgivings of other leaders, and even though that overrides Britain's tacit veto.

It's a perfect example of the very syndrome that infuriates Brits: the unlegislated drift of power from national governments to EU institutions. And it comes — in the name of EU democracy, mind you — after EU-wide elections in which parties opposed to that drift made great gains.

As a result, Cameron's difficulties over Europe are rapidly compounding. His position requires him to argue that Europe is reformable; Europe is telling the world it isn't. How many of these rebuffs can Cameron absorb before he has to acknowledge that Britain's choice is not between a new, less centralized union and divorce, but between divorce and the union as it is (only more so)? In effect, he's already cast aside the argument that Britain has a compelling interest in remaining an EU member on almost any terms. If he believed that, he wouldn't have promised a referendum in the first place.

Will Britain move next to a more serious discussion of a British exit from the EU? Opinions are expressed on both sides, of course, but there's no real discussion. The loudest voices insist that Britain must quit to save its democracy — or that leaving would cause such colossal economic harm that the idea is simply nuts. As yet, there's been no grappling with the trade-offs, no weighing of pros and cons. This ought to change. Perhaps it now will.

The British, it seems fair to say, will never feel comfortable in the Europe envisaged by Juncker and his backers. And the kind of Europe in which they would feel at home is not what other governments appear to want, regardless of what their voters might prefer. Perhaps this should have been clear long ago; at any rate, it gets clearer all the time. A friendly dissolution begins to look more attractive — and in the interests of all the partners.

That conversation certainly isn't what Cameron wanted. Thanks to his own miscalculations and the obduracy of his EU counterparts, it's where Europe may be heading.

_ Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.