IN WHAT could be called his concession speech, following the EU Council’s unprecedented vote to nominate Jean-Claude Juncker as the European Commission’s next president, David Cameron was right to frame it as only one of many engagements with Europe. The trouble is that the sheer volume of energy spent on the campaign to fight Juncker framed this as the ultimate battle, with Britain’s EU membership on the line. This should never have been the case, not least because the reform agenda being pursued to keep the UK on board is less beholden to the Commission president than is often portrayed.
The Commission’s work programme for the next five years is broadly informed by the policy priorities hammered out by national leaders, much of which took place at last week’s summit. This wrangling underlines member states’ continuing primacy in determining the EU’s future direction of travel. The UK touts its reform agenda across Europe’s national capitals because their agreement is most central to delivering on the objectives of competitiveness and flexibility.
This is not to say Juncker is inconsequential; indeed, he will be central to rolling the agenda out. Most pressingly for the UK, he will decide on the composition of the next Commission, meaning the chances of a British commissioner securing an important economic portfolio rest entirely with him. This is where Juncker’s reputation for seeking and sowing compromise will hopefully pay dividends.
As Cameron belatedly recognised in his post-summit press conference, one of Juncker’s key campaign pledges was to explicitly “work for a fair deal with Britain”. A good first step would be to assign the UK a Commission brief that would allow it to pursue and produce some of the reforms necessary to boosting the EU’s competitiveness.
Businesses here and on the continent would benefit immensely from breaking down the barriers that remain to cross-border trade in services. With an eye for the right kind of regulation (quality over quantity), a UK commissioner for the internal market would be well-placed to drive forward the Single Market in areas that add value.
Equally, the competition and energy portfolios would give the UK significant influence over Europe’s future direction of travel. Just 11 per cent of IoD members think the EU currently represents a viable socio-economic model. In the wake of the Eurozone crisis, protectionism is on the rise, a trend which threatens to turn the EU’s focus ever more inwards. Securing the competition brief would give Britain a huge hand in stemming this surge and making the bloc’s outlook more open. A British energy commissioner, meanwhile, would afford the UK a chance to tackle Europe’s critical security of supply issues, to create a fully functioning gas and electricity market, and enable the EU to better compete with the rest of the world.
Keeping the EU focused only on areas where it can add value and improve competitiveness is the key battle that Cameron should be focused on, and is one where he does have support. Losing out in the clash over Juncker, after being abandoned by initial allies, has provided him with some political leverage to drive this more important message home. A messy victory could have reduced the scope of his bargaining power in stakes of far higher significance. Ensuring those favours are called in during the right future policy battles will be crucial to determining the UK’s future in the EU.
Allie Renison is head of Europe and trade policy at the Institute of Directors. @AllieRenison