London should hug – not hate – the Luxembourg former prime minister and David Cameron should pick up the phone and ask: ‘Can we talk?’, writes Denis MacShane.
Denis MacShane is a former UK minister for Europe and Advisory Board Member of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF).
One of the great puzzles of the aftermath of the European parliament election has been the furore over the idea that Jean-Claude Juncker should become the next president of the European Commission.
He is in favour of low taxes and a champion of lightly regulated financial services – after all, his native Luxembourg is the closest the European Union (EU) has to an onshore tax haven.
He was bitterly attacked by the European left during the European parliament election campaign. His main opponent, the German social democrat MEP, Martin Schulz, charged Juncker with imposing George Osborne-style austerity and spending cuts across the euro area.
Juncker comes from a small duchy squeezed between France and Germany and is an acknowledged ring-holder. Luxembourg’s royal family has good links to British royals and the small nation’s survival owes much to a pragmatic problem-solving capacity that is closer to English traditions than French Jacobinism or German legalistic point-scoring.
He was the only candidate during the European parliament election to have warm words for Britain. In a news conference he stressed that, ‘As commission president, I will work for a fair deal for Britain.’
‘No reasonable politician could neglect we have to find solutions for the political concerns in the UK. We have to do this to keep UK in,’ Juncker declared, adding that he was aware of David Cameron’s view that the EU needs major reform and stating: ‘I will be ready to talk to him about these demands in a fair and reasonable manner.’
Yet Juncker has met a level of hostility from London without parallel as if he was the EU’s Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong-un. Across the political spectrum from the Conservatives via the Liberal Democrats to Labour, from the pro-EU Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform via the commentators of the Financial Times to the more predictable writers of the Murdoch press, there is unanimity that Juncker is a dreadful man.
These people say that the otherwise harmless Luxembourger should not be allowed to run a moules-frites stall in Brussels, let alone the European Commission.
He is accused of being a federalist without any definition of what this dreaded word actually means. In fact, if there is one point on which much of London agrees, it is that the EU needs much more single market, especially in the service industry – and the EU needs a common energy policy.
But that cannot be achieved without a much more bossy, interfering Brussels forcing recalcitrant states to share sovereign powers and allow the Commission to be the ring-holder and enforcer. If smashing down protectionist barriers to create a single market is federalism, then Margaret Thatcher, the driving force behind the Single European Act, is the biggest federalist of them all.
But of course the London insult ‘federalist’ translated by the charming Jean-Marie Le Pen into French as ‘federaste’. This is a term used in Commons debates by the newly-honoured Sir Bill Cash in Britain as an all-purpose insult devoid of real meaning.
In fact, after the three European Commission presidents favoured by London – Jacques Santer, Romano Prodi and José-Manuel Barroso – who were avowed proponents of more power for Brussels, Juncker may be sensible enough to realise that the out-and-out integrationist EU vision needs a pause.
The best way to deal with someone you think does not share your vision is not to hate him, but to hug him close. You need to work out what you might have in common. And then you need to go for win-win deals in place of the zero-sum approach to the EU that London has advanced in recent years.
David Cameron is willing – rightly – to embrace rapprochement with theocratic, gay-hanging, anti-Jewish, authoritarian Iran. So is it really so difficult to pick up the phone and say ‘Salut Jean-Claude, can we talk?’
This commentary first appeared on OMFIF, the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum.