So has the iron entered David Cameron’s soul? Deceived and humiliated by the Continent’s leaders, defied by the “damp rag” President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, left with Hungary’s ultra-Right prime minister Viktor Orban as his only ally, Cameron has returned home to headlines proclaiming his isolation in Europe.
The source of his embarrassment is the election of the famously federalist and even more famously bibulous Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, the most powerful body in the EU with the sole right to initiate new laws.
Angela Merkel, who Downing Street has been touting as Dave’s new best buddy, betrayed him, promising first to block Juncker’s appointment, then reneging on her pledge because of political pressures back home in Germany.
No wonder Cameron was an angry man when he told his fellow leaders that they would come to regret bowing to the European Parliament and allowing that Lilliputian body to usurp the right of elected heads of government to choose the EU President.
Despite the fireworks, the election of Juncker, gleefully renamed “Drunker” by tabloid headline writers back home, is a sideshow compared with the gathering storm over Britain’s continued membership of the EU.
Does the “Drunker” debacle change anything? Does it mean that Dave is prepared to harden his negotiating position to the point at which he will openly threaten to lead the campaign to quit Europe in the planned 2017 referendum, if he does not secure major concessions from the rest of the EU?
That is the course of action being publicly pressed on him by Eurosceptic Conservative Mps and privately endorsed by senior Ministers on the Tory Right.
So far, Cameron has been vague and feeble about what he wants to achieve in the renegotiation of British membership of the EU if he is returned to power in next year’s general election. Talk of ensuring powers can flow away from Brussels as well as to it or weary calls to liberate businesses from red tape do not match the national mood captured by Ukip’s stunning victory in the European elections last month – the sense that Britain and Europe are near a parting of the ways.
No sign there of a bold repatriation of powers, such as the right to control our borders, run our own fishing and farming policies, junk the European arrest warrant, take back control over social and employment law, pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights and scrap any suggestion of European meddling with taxation.
For many people, and most, according to the first post-Drunker opinion poll, a British exit from the EU and the recasting of the relationship to a Swiss-style free trade deal – and not a vainglorious and unworkable political union – is the only remedy.
But is Cameron up to the challenge?
Those who know him well comment on his pragmatism and managerialism. They say he lacks any clear vision of Britain’s place in the world. Some go further, saying he believes in nothing very much, pointing out that his political hero is Harold Macmillan, a man synonymous with the orderly management of post-war decline and the first British prime minister to advocate joining the then Common Market back in the early 1960s.
One has gone a lot further – Dominic Cummings, the volatile former adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove. This is what Cummings had to say about Dave a couple of weeks ago in an interview with The Times:
“As Bismarck said about Napoleon III, Cameron is a sphinx without a riddle — he bumbles from one shambles to another without the slightest sense of purpose. Everyone is trying to find the secret of David Cameron, but he is what he appears to be. He had a picture of Macmillan on his wall — that’s all you need to know.”
Despite his latest Euro-drubbing, the Prime Minister has shown little sign of hardening his heart against the EU. This was what he said at his post-match press conference: “I believe our national interest lies in reforming the EU, holding a referendum and recommending we stay in. Has that got harder to achieve? Yes.”
Harder, yes, because Europe’s leaders have, as Iain Duncan Smith said, flicked two fingers as Britain. Harder, too, because Juncker wants a European diplomatic corps, a pan-European minimum wage, a federal police force and army, and common taxation across the EU. In short, he wants a United States of Europe.
Cameron’s response suggests he still fails to grasp the nature of the European beast and the forlorn hope that lies at the core of his talk of reform. He won’t even threaten to do what every tough negotiator practises – to signal that if he doesn’t get a great deal for Britain he will walk away from the table.
The leading article in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph concluded that the Euro-federalists had indeed put the iron in the PM’s soul. This is wishful thinking. They have hurt his pride. They may have stiffened his backbone. But Cameron’s final break with Brussels – if comes at all – lies in the future.