The man David Cameron tried to bar from Brussels is riding to his rescue.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose appointment the U.K. prime minister sought to block, has handed Cameron a bunch of ammunition to use against his opponents as the British government prepares to submit its wish-list of European Union reforms as early as next week.
Juncker has pledged talks to boost EU trade with Australia and New Zealand, backed up Britain’s overtures to China, and vowed to ax lingering barriers to commerce within the 28-nation bloc. Cameron, facing increasingly vocal domestic opposition to Europe, has embraced the appeal to his party’s free-market principles.
“This commission is listening,” Vicky Ford, a member of Cameron’s Conservative Party in the European Parliament who chairs the assembly’s Internal Market committee, said in an Oct. 28 interview in Strasbourg, France. “This commission understands — from the very top.”
With Cameron committed to an in-or-out referendum on British membership of the EU by the end of 2017, Juncker is setting aside past differences to help the U.K. leader defeat the campaign for an exit.
Cameron last year fought a losing battle against fellow EU leaders to prevent Juncker becoming president of the EU’s executive arm with only Hungary’s nationalist euroskeptic prime minister, Viktor Orban, in support. Cameron labeled the former Luxembourg premier a “career insider” who’d led a European power grab against nation states and would make it harder to keep Britain in the EU. The British tabloid newspaper The Sun called Juncker “the most dangerous man in Europe.”
During and after Cameron’s attacks, Juncker vowed to seek a “fair deal” for Britain in its push to repatriate EU powers and shield itself from the bloc’s legal commitment to “ever closer union.” He has shown a willingness to meet U.K. demands as long as they don’t impinge on fundamental EU principles such as the free movement of workers and has spoken out in favor of Britain’s continued membership of the bloc by praising what he calls the country’s “no-nonsense” qualities.
“Juncker is a committed, visceral European who is determined to keep the U.K. in the EU,” said Michael Tscherny, who advises companies on European policy at GPlus Europe in Brussels. “He has taken on a personal role in this matter.”
The commission tossed headline-grabbing vows to seek new deals with countries outside Europe when presenting a trade-and-investment initiative three weeks ago. In addition to mentioning the goal of entering free-trade talks with Australia and New Zealand, which strike a positive chord in the U.K. because they are part of The Commonwealth, the commission said it would aim for fresh negotiations with the Philippines and Singapore “when appropriate” and “ambitious objectives” with China.
“I’m delighted,” Cameron said on Oct. 14 after Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem unveiled the plans. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the U.K. five days later.
“It’s not a coincidence that the commission’s communication machine is presenting initiatives in ways that are palatable to Britain,” said Tscherny, a former commission spokesman. “They know how to play the game.”
The commission work program for 2016, entitled “No time for business as usual,” promises better regulation — including by repealing some European laws — and a “deepening” of the EU’s border-free internal market. The commission topped this up with a “new Single Market strategy” that recycled old plans to reduce obstacles to intra-EU trade in areas such as business services, construction and retail.
David Lidington, Britain’s Minister for Europe, praised the commission for supporting “jobs and growth, which is one of the U.K.’s key EU reform aims” and for regulating “in a less intrusive way.”
The U.K. enthusiasm could equally have applied to Financial Services Commissioner Jonathan Hill’s plan to pull down investment barriers and review rules rushed through after 2008 to shore up the banking system. Or indeed Juncker’s appointment of the commission’s top financial services expert, Briton Jonathan Faull, as point man on the negotiations with the U.K.
With a meeting of EU leaders in December due to address the British question, Cameron has said the U.K.’s EU renegotiation will accelerate once he puts his demands in writing and Juncker is looking to complete a deal at some point next year.
“I am 150 percent in favor of having Britain as a constructive member state of the European Union,” Juncker said last month in Brussels. “We need Britain.”