European Union leaders voted 26 to 2 to approve Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination as the next president of the European Commission.
Only David Cameron and the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, were against the idea. The British prime minister was either humiliated or bravely stood up for Britain, depending on which newspaper you read.
Is Juncker so awful? On one level he appears rather appealing. Having effectively run Luxembourg for more than 20 years, he is widely credited with having turned it from a sleepy backwater into the nation with the highest per-capita income in the whole of the EU, largely by creating an extremely attractive regime for bankers. A banker-loving Commission president ought to be just what the UK needs.
One of our biggest worries is the EU’s transaction tax proposals, which are widely seen here as an attack on our dominance in financial services. He is a deal-maker and, whether you like it or not, Europe is all about doing deals. Plus, he knows his way to the Brussels executive washroom. He is a consummate insider.
And that’s where Cameron sees the problem. Because although Juncker is effective as a great deal-maker who has presided over the deals the eurozone has done with the failing economies of Greece, Portugal, Cyprus and elsewhere, what he represents is no change. He is the candidate for the status quo.
Cameron, by contrast, is quite clear that Europe desperately needs change and points to the rise of the Front National in France, UKIP here and other anti-Brussels movements throughout the club of 28 to prove that voters agree with him.
Where does that leave the UK? David Cameron has promised that if re-elected he will renegotiate the EU treaties and then put the results of his efforts to an in-out referendum in 2017. The two other main party leaders have so far declined to make a similar commitment — although it is strongly rumoured in Westminster that Nick Clegg is being urged to match Cameron’s pledge on the basis that this would throw down the gauntlet to the ‘out’ brigade and leave Labour isolated. Ed Miliband is said to be under similar pressure.
Assuming, therefore, that we do have our referendum, Juncker’s appointment makes it less likely that real change will be on offer. Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, has made it clear she sympathises but cannot offer much. Germany is too wedded to the EU for that. Elsewhere there may be agreement on the need for change but less on where and how to make it happen. Therefore, whatever package the British prime minister comes back with is unlikely to impress his audience back home. The prospect of the UK voting to leave is now more likely than ever.
So would a vote to leave be fatal? I think not. In simple terms the EU needs us as much as we need the EU. They export more to us than we do to them, so a trade war is unlikely. They export
as much to us as they do to the US, so we have serious clout. We could cooperate where it is in our interest, as it often will be, but as equals. The British government would be able control its own borders without external interference.
There will be those who say that leaving might discourage foreign direct investment, but given the inevitable absence of trade barriers and the fact that this is one of the most relaxed employment regimes of any European country, that is unlikely. One clincher for me is that some of those - including Nick Clegg - who are now telling us that to leave the EU would be fatal, are among those who told us a decade ago that not joining the euro would be equally fatal. You can learn a lot about the future from history.
Steven Norris is a former Conservative minister and London mayoral candidate. He is chairman of the National Planning and Infrastructure Association and of Soho Estates