As one of the ‘wise men’ of EU politics, Hans-Gert Pöttering has seen a generation of talented young politicians come and go. But few cut such a “tragic figure” as David Cameron, the former British prime minister who set Brexit in motion.
On Monday evening (29 January), the former European Parliament president recounted an anecdote of sharing breakfast with a young David Cameron in a swanky London hotel.
It was early 2006 and Cameron had been the leader of the Conservative party for a matter of weeks. His promise to withdraw his party’s MEPs from the European People’s Party (EPP), of which Pöttering was the leader, had helped him win the leadership by outflanking his more naturally Eurosceptic rival David Davis, but few thought him at all interested in the European Union.
Even fewer expected his premiership to be defined by it – Cameron was too busy cultivating his image as the ‘heir to Blair’.
Pöttering attempted to persuade the young Cameron to remain part of the centre-right family, pointing out that the European Democrats – the sub-group created by the Tories in 1979 – was only associated to the EPP.
“I had good relations with all his members apart from the H-Block,” says Pöttering, a reference to three died-in-the-wool eurosceptic MEPs: Dan Hannan, Chris Heaton-Harris and Roger Helmer.
It didn’t work, of course, with the young pretender opting to throw a sop to his party’s eurosceptics and form an unlikely alliance with the Czech ODS and Poland’s Law and Justice Party.
At the time, Brussels insiders viewed leaving the EPP as a folly, albeit a small one. Leaving the EU’s main political grouping – which then, as now, accounted for most of Europe’s political leaders – would reduce British influence, they said. Few would have predicted that twelve years on Davis would be the minister tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU, which Cameron had achieved by accident.
Cameron, says Pöttering, is a “tragic figure”.
That is, perhaps, a charitable judgement and one that is unlikely to be shared by most of those on the EU and UK teams tasked with negotiating his accidental Brexit.
“I think that the tragedy of Brexit is that David Cameron for many years always criticised the European Union, criticised Brussels, and then he wanted a yes from the British people to stay in the European Union,” the German grandee told EURACTIV.com.
That, however, is undeniably true. And the train started with the decision to leave the EPP.
As Leader of the Opposition, Cameron promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, only to back down after it had been ratified and he had become prime minister. Several years later he vetoed the fiscal compact treaty only for the other 27 EU states to proceed with it anyway and passed a “referendum lock” that guaranteed a referendum on any future transfer of powers to Brussels. That was, as we know, followed by a botched attempt to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership.
In other words, he fanned the flames of Euroscepticism only to then ask the British people to endorse his (decidedly limited) vision of EU membership.
“As I keep saying, it’s a mistake, not a disaster”, Cameron was overheard telling steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
A popular English nursery rhyme tells the tale about the Duke of York, who marched his 10,000 men to the top of the hill only to march them down again. David Cameron’s tragedy is that he repeated this strategy for over a decade, only to discover that nobody was listening to him.