One of the most surprising revelations of this weeks’ European Council was the weakness of British diplomacy. The lack of any proper diplomatic strategy is indeed shocking and one may come to the conclusion that this has been a complete diplomatic failure. It would be interesting to know whether this was a deliberate strategy (basically not wanting a deal from the beginning) or if this points to underlying problems within the Foreign Office or Downing Street. Interestingly it was the UK treasury that prepared a last minute protocol which was used by David Cameron as the main negotiating tool. The main problem for Cameron was twofold:
First, his demands had nothing to do with the discussions at the summit. Second, nobody knew about his demands in advance.
What sort of diplomacy is this?
Moreover, Cameron had no allies whatsoever. Another grave diplomatic failure. During the last couple of weeks it became clear that this summit would be an important one. But Cameron did not care about allies abroad – no, it was more important to discuss repatriation and referendums at home. Did he talk to PMs in Poland or Romania? Maybe he should have read Sikorski’s speech to grasp the mood in the region? Did he travel to the Baltics, Denmark or Sweden? And what was the diplomatic strategy regarding Germany and France?
At the same time, the idea of speaking for the 10 non-euro countries was flawed from the beginning. Most other countries are legally obliged to introduce the euro so they have an interest in being close to Merkel and Sarkozy in order to shape the rules they will have to obey at some point. As soon as Merkel and Sarkozy came up with a ‘euro plus’ framework the argument was lost for Britain.
When Cameron met Angela Merkel in Berlin a couple of weeks ago he only mentioned his problems with the Working Time Directive (EWTD) and said nothing about the specific City interests. Interestingly, during the summit Merkel was prepared to discuss a EJC ruling of the EWTD (according to German media reports – can’t find the link at the moment).
Both, Die Welt and The Economist have similar stories about what exactly happened during the summit. It turns out that Cameron misjudged the mood among fellow leaders during the summit. Cameron thought that the ‘Protocol 12’ solution was the preferred method for the eurozone – giving him leverage through a unanimous decision-making procedure. Bagehot thinks Cameron overplayed his hand, others said he lost his gamble (or verzockt as Udo van Kampen called it on German TV) However, if he had listened to what politicians, diplomats and media commentators in Germany or France said during the last weeks he should have known better. Plus he had no allies, hence his isolation was not a surprise. Simply put, Cameron is not in the loop, maybe because he pulled out of the EPP… In any case, his advisors should be sacked.
Cameron is not a diplomat and I am not sure he actually enjoys summits. Deep in his heart he is a eurosceptic (although the UK government has followed a pragmatic EU policy) but he comes across as arrogant and bossy. Especially during the eurozone crisis a sense of schadenfreude dominated the UK’s rhethoric. The UK’s bilateral relations with EU member states have not been sufficiently developed. Cameron is like a robot in this respect. Whatever the issue somewhere in Europe he starts his monologue about British interests and why the EU is such a bad idea. This is hardly a good starting point for a constructive debate. Moreover, it seems difficult for him to build personal relationships with other European leaders – a necessity to win an argument at a summit.
The veto myth
After a good spin by Cameron we are now faced with a ‘veto myth’ which is going through the British and European media. Especially the so-called Eurosceptics in the UK love the idea of David ‘the Eurosceptic’ Cameron. The problem as pointed out by more eloquent writers is that this was not a veto. A veto stops something. Cameron did not manage to stop anything. It is a bluff. The question is how long will Cameron benefit from calling it a veto?
The main line of Cameron was to ‘defend the national interest’ which translates into ‘defending the interests of the City’. Now I don’t want to discuss why that is necessary or why he is doing it but I want to point out something else:
Defending a certain interest can be a good strategy. But the diplomatic failure described above led to a situation in which nothing of which Cameron wanted to defend was actually on the agenda. So basically he did not defend his ‘national interest’ – he was isolated and ignored. How can he claim to actually used a ‘veto’? How can he claim it was a victory for Britain? (also considering the British record in the field of EU wide financial regulation, see for example here and here)
The ‘veto myth’ also creates another problem for Cameron. The UK position is weakened after this summit. The euro plus group may create rules that are not in the interest of the UK (and the City is not happy about isolation either). Moreover, this may backfire in the ‘normal’ EU policy making processes as this episode did not help to improve the reputation of the UK government.
It seems to me that Cameron is a bad negotiator. He does not seem to get the nature of EU negotiations. Merkel and Sarkozy (and others) often propose things before a summit just to use it as a bargaining chip. Cameron never does it – and never understands it when others do it. He also seems to have no interest in developing a compromise. Cameron goes to Brussels to defend Britain – not to negotiate a compromise that Britain can support and is in the interest of Britain. A crucial difference.
I am also a bit surprised that he actually picked ‘the City’ as the national interest worth defending. Of course it makes sense for a Conservative PM but defending the interest of bankers is not necessarily a topic to win public opinion and new voters? It is more crowd pleaser for the Tories and for the tabloids that think that the EU is more evil than the City.
Domestic debate and backbenchers
Cameron must have been afraid of his eurosceptic backbenchers and a possible referendum (although I still fail to see the justification as it was a proposed treaty change that does not affect the UK ). Was the threat that great that Cameron was afraid to lose the argument? He must have felt that the government could collapse if he signed up to anything. Maybe he was thinking about the need to involve Labour to get it through parliament? Cameron placed the importance of the domestic debate over the common good – which should not surprise anyone who is familiar with Cameron’s take on the EU. He is not only afraid of any EU debate in his party – ultimately he is afraid to lose power.
But when will the media and the Conservative party realise that this whole story was a diplomatic failure and a personal misjudgment of David Cameron? It might indeed backfire…
(Another interpretation is that Cameron really had an interest in helping the EU26. A separate treaty might indeed be more efficient. And by pushing the EU26 into a separate treaty Cameron is able to get some sort of single-market-only-EU the Tories dream of (at least he can sell it that way!). It may not appease the anti-EU fraction but it may win over the moderate eurosceptics. By inventing a ‘protocol to defend the national interest’ Cameron was able to withdraw from the negotiations with a certain dignity. Plus he was able to score some useful anti-EU points in the national debate. Moreover, he achieved some sort of separation between the EU and the UK which he can use in the future to avoid referendums and EU related debates in his party.)