This phrase has been screaming in my ear all day on the back of David Cameron’s use of the UK’s veto in the EU negotiations of recent days. But why?
The first – and only time I had come across the term was in one of the biggest books I’ve ever been given – an illustrated history of the Second World War. In it, I read about the relief of the Demyansk pocket by the Luftwaffe. Although the relief was nominally successful, it used up much of the transport capabilities of the Luftwaffe while at the same time convincing Goering that the same tactics could be used again but on a bigger scale. This they tried at Stalingrad. And the rest is history.
The general definition of a pyrrhic victory (named after an ancient leader from the antiquity) is that it is achieved at such a cost that an attempt to achieve a similar victory later on is very likely to end up in defeat.
“OMGz Poofflez are you saying DaveCam is a nazi?!?!?!”
All I’ve done is explained how I stumbled across a concept named after Pyrrhus of Epirus who lived ages ago.
What I’m asking today is whether David Cameron’s use of the veto will be seen as a pyrrhic victory later on down the line.
In the short term, Cameron has appeased the strong Euro-sceptic right in his party, along with the Euro-sceptic press – as Eoin Clarke describes in this blogpost. He may well have strengthened his position within his own party and the wider Euro-sceptic sections of the population. The ten reasons given by Clarke are self-explanatory and I won’t repeat them here. (I recommend reading them as the analysis is all the more interesting given the “Labour Left” disposition his blog takes).
Even after reading all of this, the calls of “pyrrhic victory” are still there. Why?
It would be all too easy to tear into Cameron for selling the 99% down the river, for ruling out a Robin Hood Tax, for protecting the interests of the democratically-challenged City of London Corporation and for securing the future careers in investment banking for Britain’s public schoolboys…but I’ll leave that for others 😉 – I’m interested in how the rest of the EU chooses to react, and what this all means for UK-EU relations.
The newspapers and commentators critical of Cameron have focused on Cameron’s isolation from the rest of the EU. The Bagehot column in The Economist also gave Cameron a bit of a kicking too. Did he overplay his hand? Jon Worth seems to think so – arguing that Merkel and Sarkozy got most of what they wanted and Cameron didn’t.
The dilema facing Cameron was that he has a strong European right who had just given him a Parliamentary kicking a few weeks prior. Against that, he is also aware that the last thing in the world the UK needs is its major export markets (which are mainly European) crashing and burning. How do you balance the two?
What’s surprised me is the completely different approach that Cameron’s administration has taken to that of Gordon Brown – especially given that the former has Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. In the first part of the financial crisis Gordon Brown seemed to be in his element – in part I think because this was familiar territory intellectually and also because he had some big players on the European stage (Sarkozy and Barosso in particular) being seen to be grateful for his intervention. Sarkozy in particular owed Gordon Brown a huge debt of gratitude for getting him out of what seemed like endless bad press in 2007/08 in the early days of his presidency with coverage of his private life. Some were saying that it all seemed so… ‘unpresidential’. In the midst of all of this, Gordon Brown sorted out a state visit to the UK with all the trappings, pomp and history that is associated with such visits – along with all of those photo opportunities. The state banquet, the address to the joint Houses of Parliament and a hat tip to the football fans with a summit at Arsenal Football Club. I don’t know whether the seemingly good working relationships Brown and Sarkozy had (which dates from when both were finance ministers under Blair and Chirac respectively) has had an impact on Cameron’s thinking.
What has Cameron’s approach been? As with his approach to other parts of government, it’s been one of ‘it is for others to resolve’. In part, this is consistent with trying to move away from micromanaging things – something that Labour were criticised for during its time in office. Yet given the scale of the Eurozone crisis, would it not be better for the Government to take a more proactive role to help resolve the crisis rather than standing back and letting others resolve it? I make this point because at the moment the lack of political heavyweights in Europe is showing – as I have pointed out in previous blogposts. If there is any time that an intelligent, competent, respected and driven political leaders – statesman (or stateswomen even), is needed, it’s now. We’ve got an ongoing economic crisis that’s been going on for longer than is sensible, and over the past week we’ve seen both this gathering and the climate change talks in Durban trying to deal with two massive crises – of the economy and the environment respectively.
The problem with how the UK political establishment views the EU at the moment is that there is a ‘vacuum’ – one that the Euro-sceptic right have been more than happy to fill. There has been such a lack of detailed policy and thinking coming from those who are in decision-making roles and influencing roles that in one sense we should not be surprised that Cameron did what he did. One of the accusations that stuck with Labour was what their alternative would have been. It’s all very well to say “we would have built partnerships, relationships and alliances with Europe” but from what starting point? What would have been their base negotiating position? Given Nick Clegg’s role as Deputy Prime Minister and his party’s role in the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats have been surprisingly quiet – or if not, the media has for whatever reason not interviewed them. Could the Lib Dems have wheeled out messrs Ashdown, Campbell and Oakshott to do all the media rounds on a regular basis in the weeks running up to this summit? Should they have been reaching out to Labour backbenchers such as David Miliband to try and balance some of the more extreme Euro-sceptic rhetoric and influence the Coalition to at least change its approach if not its policy? I can’t help but feel that too many of our EU partners were caught by surprise by the UK’s approach – which indicates that officials were not properly directed (or listened to) by ministers to prepare the ground in advance – which I believe is the norm for these international gatherings.
The Prime Minister will be able to spend the next couple of days basking in the praise of eurosceptic commentators from the mainstream media, as well as having shored up some of his foundations within the grassroots of his party. Yet for all this, I can’t help but feel that few politicians – of all the main parties – have come out of this well. Cameron didn’t need to make a crisis out of the original EU backbench vote. Had he given his MPs a free vote and said “I hear what you’re saying/sympathise but we’re in a Coalition” he may have had a much more free hand in these negotiations. Had he properly prepared the ground, managed expectations with EU partners, and had some sort of plan for securing agreement for a future summit those powers he wants to repatriate, he may have been more successful.
As it is, he’s antagonised a number of his key EU partners, reduced the likelihood that they will agree to debate those areas he wants to debate at future summits and, from his perspective increased the risk that the rest of the EU will want to use the existing EU framework to target that very institution he wants to protect: The City of London.