This relatively minor stand-off may cause disproportionate difficulties and trigger events that nobody could manage, much less accurately predict.
Mr Cameron is caught between a stone and a hard place: The domestic threat posed by the anti-EU Ukip and Mr Juncker’s commitment to ever-closer institutional and economic ties. That Ukip’s advance is over the corpses — metaphorically so far — of Conservative councillors, MPs, or MEPs brings an urgency to Mr Cameron’s purpose. Political survival and expediency, not Mr Juncker’s elevation, are the defining issues.
Mr Cameron’s credibility took another blow yesterday when he was obliged to offer an abject apology for employing former newspaper editor and personal friend Andy Coulson as his chief spin doctor. Coulson was convicted of being part of the phone-hacking conspiracy and he may be jailed. Mr Cameron gave a “full and frank apology”: “It was the wrong decision and I am very clear about that.” Having to acknowledge this failure, and its timing, hardly strengthens his hand in Brussels. His position cannot be helped either by the prospect, just weeks away, of Scotland voting for independence. Should that transpire, Mr Cameron will have far greater problems than Mr Juncker.
Weekend polls that British people would vote to leave the EU by a large margin under the current terms adds to the pressure he faces. A total of 48% would definitely or probably vote to leave, while 37% said they would definitely or probably vote to stay in. Mr Cameron, who has promised to hold an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 if the Conservatives are re-elected, may avert that exodus by renegotiating membership terms.
Mr Cameron has achieved a minor victory, though time will probably show it to be Pyrrhic. He has insisted that EU leaders vote to choose the next president of the commission. This insistence sidelines the Spitzenkandidaten process through which the president is chosen by the largest European parliamentary grouping. Mr Cameron argues that Spitzenkandidaten would be an irreversible step that would hand power from the European Council to the parliament. The EU is rightly criticised, often by the Eurosceptic wing of Mr Cameron’s party, for its democratic deficit. It is difficult to argue this will not intensify that disenchantment.
Mr Cameron’s difficulties, his anti-Juncker position, the rise of Ukip, the Scottish independence referendum, and the prospect of an in/out EU vote in Britain are, at the moment, little more than conversation points for Irish political anoraks, but they all seem to be gathering a momentum that could have profound consequences for us. Mr Cameron may have wasted political capital by backing himself into a corner but we may have to find a way out of it if we are not to pay a heavy price.