Make your mind up on Europe, Mr Cameron, we are told by a member of Der Spiegel‘s editorial board. If Merkel picks Juncker it will be living democracy, against the stubborn blockers, says Der Spiegel. Elsewhere, we discover that it’s Great Britain against democracy, according to Jean Quatremer. It’s a moral obligation that the Eurogroup chairman and defender of Luxembourg as a tax haven should be boss, says Alexis Tsipras.
The point is apparently that not everyone wants Jean-Claude Juncker for Commission President, and among this group is the British prime minister. The ur-text here is this Der Spiegel story, which claims that Cameron threatened Angela Merkel with a UK withdrawal from the EU if Juncker gets it.
Well, the headline claims that, and the strap more so. The headline says he “warned” her; the strap uses the German verb “to threaten”. The first paragraph, though, already walks the story back more than a bit. It says in the first sentence that Cameron is meant to have “put Merkel under pressure with the warning that he might not be able to guarantee that the UK would stay in the EU” if Juncker is picked. In the German, the subjunctive form is used.
In the second sentence, things get a bit more specific. According to “the participants’ circle, speaking to Der Spiegel“, which I think means something along the lines of “Sources close to some politician’s camp…” in British newspaper code, “Cameron made it clear on the fringes of the meeting”, i.e. he didn’t actually say it and he didn’t say it to Merkel, “that such a vote [or veto] might [subjunctive] destabilise his government to the extent that a referendum would have to be brought forward, which might lead to a probable British exit”. The last clause there is, I think, in the subjunctive mood, the passive voice, the future tense, and the conditional all at once, although I may have missed a syntactical subtlety at some point.
You’ll notice, though, that the anonymous source, who may not have been actually there (“circles”), doesn’t mention a direct threat and doesn’t quote Cameron. But you have to try hard to notice this, because there is a Cameron quote: A face from the 1980s can’t solve the problems of the next five years. I can imagine Cameron saying that. But it’s nothing like a threat to leave the EU, or even a longwinded observation on what might potentially happen given various scenarios. So what is it doing here?
Oddly enough, the eurosceptic prime minister with a notoriously difficult eurosceptic wing in his party, who’s fighting a massive UKIP insurgency to his right, hasn’t managed to brief this out to the friendly eurosceptic papers. Surely the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and the Sun are busy depicting heroic Spitfire pilot Cameron defying the Huns. Well, no, they’re not. Perhaps they don’t read German. More to the point, perhaps they don’t get those convenient anonymous briefings after the Bundespressekonferenz.
Because the style of this story is so typically Spiegel. The headline is a screamer. So vielversprechend or maybe just verhängnisvoll. You get into the story, and you find some kind of quote from a Big Important Guy (always a guy), which doesn’t actually say that. In between the two, there’s a lot of stuff about sources close to and friends, protected with exquisitely lawyered prose to eliminate any trace of responsibility. Typically, they’re close to the most pro-American and pro-ECB bits of the German establishment, which is why it was astonishing that they became a tier-one partner as it were of Ed Snowden. It’s very often the worst kind of establishment journalism, the sort of thing you get from David Brooks or Patrick Wintour or fill in your country’s version of it.
After all, if Cameron’s supposed démarche was so outrageous, why isn’t anyone and indeed Der Spiegel furious with Angela Merkel, who according to the Springer paper Berliner Morgenpost wouldn’t support Juncker on the night, who according to the Financial Times threw the race wide open, and who threatened to veto Juncker herself…according to Der Spiegel.
Merkel has her reasons. Here’s a post of mine from a few months back, about the way the choice of the commission president was becoming a question of power between the Parliament and the heads of government. You’ll notice that a key source back then was Jean Quatremer, who thought Merkel was behaving outrageously in trying to influence it. Now he doesn’t. It’s the Brits.
So let’s have a look at this really outstanding post from Thomas Mayer of Austrian paper Der Standard. If it’s information you want, this is pretty close to what you need – a detailed ticktock of election night. Mayer argues that as the results came in, Martin Schulz didn’t feel he should give in, because after all, it’s not as if Juncker has a majority. Juncker tried to bounce everyone into accepting him as boss, getting the outgoing head of the EP socialists, the Austrian Hannes Swoboda, to back him and offering Schulz the slot as vice-chief of the commission.
But Merkel wouldn’t wear it, because Schulz being a commissioner would take up a slot that a German conservative would otherwise get. And they told me it was all about principles. Looking at Mayer’s story and my old one, they fit quite well. Merkel might well have wanted to place Juncker as Council President, creating a vacancy among the Spitzenkandidaten and an opportunity to assert the Council’s power. But Juncker’s party did better than it was polling at the time this plan was hatched, and perhaps he thinks there’s more power in the Commission. I know I do. So he ignored any offer from that quarter and went for the main chance. This is bad news if you had that plan in mind, and a Schulz coalition is not acceptable for party political reasons. With targeted briefing, this could all be blamed on the Eurobogeyman.
Saying this, though, implies accepting that they do politics in the European Union. Politics. Where it’s possible to be wrong. Bogeyman stories are easier, in the same way that hoovering up unattributable government briefings is easier than journalism.