Between the lines: Cameron’s counterproductive EU strategy

It's David Cameron's boldest diplomatic move yet – and possibly his stupidest. So why is the PM making an ill-fated bid to sabotage Jean-Claude Juncker's appointment as president of the European Commission?

To find the answer I've been working my way through the readout issued by No 10 – what a Downing Street spokesperson has to say – after yesterday's meeting between Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European council, and the beleaguered British prime minister. Everywhere you turn in the British negotiating position there are weaknesses. But there are strengths too – and it's those which hold the key to understanding what on earth Cameron is up to.

"The talks were full and frank. The prime minister explained that his view would not change…"

Crippling weakness: Negotiations require a bit of give and take on both sides. Above all, they require room for compromise. With Cameron making clear he is not going to budge, the actual political process is already over.

Hidden strength: This kind of grandstanding, while not very productive in actually changing views on the continent, at least goes down very well at home. Conservative eurosceptics are already slavering at the lips at the prospect of their leader getting all hard-nosed with Europe. It will be like the treaty veto all over again: rapturous approval in the Commons chamber, while the PM's popularity plummets abroad.

"… Simply accepting the 'Spitzenkandidaten' process would be an irreversible step…"

Rulebook strengths: What British diplomats are pointing out whenever they get the opportunity is that something akin to the 'Spitzenkandidat' process' was discussed during the negotiations for the Lisbon treaty, but was dismissed out of hand. The process essentially identifies the prime candidate for the European Commission presidency based on the results of the European parliament elections. It's on this basis that Jean-Claude Juncker, as the preferred candidate of the centre-right European People's party grouping in the parliament, claims his right to succeed Jose-Manuel Barroso. Yet this isn't based in treaties at all. As Europe minister David Lidington explained to peers yesterday: "There is absolutely nothing specific in the treaties about groups in the European parliament having a particular role." Certainly no-one voting in the elections actually thought they were also helping choose the next Commission president. In Germany, the country where Juncker's name was most prominent, polls showed less than a fifth of voters even knew he was the lead candidate for the EPP.

Awkward weakness: The problem with this approach is that, frankly, no-one cares. It is, in the words of crossbencher Lord Kerr yesterday, a "magnificent red herring". In all politics there are unwritten rules as well as written ones. And the convention that's developed in Brussels has been to allow the candidate from the leading party to get the job.

"… which would hand power from the European council to the European parliament, with the risk that the European parliament would dictate the European Union's agenda. It would also politicise the European Commission and compromise its exercise of its important regulatory functions…"

Strength in ambiguity: What the Lisbon treaty actually says is that the European council – that is, the heads of government of the EU's 28 member states – should put forward a name to the European parliament after having "taken account" of the European election results. It doesn't say anywhere what 'taken account' means, which the British think gives them sufficient wriggle-room to reject the trend on the continent altogether. The UK position is that, by letting the Commission become dominated by a political figure, it will stop becoming an impartial civil service for the EU and turn into something else altogether.

Weakness in ambiguity: The UK's complaints about the balances of power between the EU's institutions are confusing because they are not very well-targeted. Is it the European parliament they're scared of, or the Commission? By apparently attacking pretty much everyone, the British position becomes even more alienating.

"… The prime minister also underlined the UK's cross-party opposition to the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission…"

Hypocritical weakness: The opening line of any British diplomatic exchange on Europe is 'this isn't personal…' Yet everyone in Europe understands the British mission is targeted against one man and one man only.

Strength in depth: The Tories think Juncker is too federalist, even though he is a centre-right politician. This is no coincidence, for he is the candidate of the European People's party which Cameron led the British Conservatives away from for being too pro-European. It's that exit which set up the tensions in Brussels and has made this whole divide so acute. Of course the other British political parties don't want Juncker – he's not the centre-left candidate, or the liberal one either. The Tory position is the critical one in uniting British politics against Juncker. It lends the UK stance a certain consistency, that's for sure.

"… It would end the decades-long practice of always finding a candidate by consensus. And it would ignore the clear pro-change and pro-reform message delivered by European voters in the recent European Parliament elections…"

Obvious strength: It's true that consensus is important in Europe.

Obvious weakness: Consensus is an achievement, not a right. When you choose to separate yourself from others in Europe – to the extent of allowing potential allies like the Polish foreign minister reveal you have "f****d up" – you have to accept the consequences.

"The Prime Minister asked President Van Rompuy to prepare the European Council for a vote on Mr Juncker's nomination, should the European Council choose to depart from a consensus-led approach when it meets this week. President Van Rompuy agreed to work through how a vote would proceed."

Tragic weakness: The PM's fatal flaw in this whole strategy is that he doesn't stand a chance of success. Getting an unprecedented vote in next week's summit of European leaders is like successfully requesting a show trial at which you're bound to be condemned to death.

A silver-lining strength: What, then, is the point of it all? The entire British approach to this negotiation has been shaped by an expectation of failure. Everyone knows this is not going to work out for the UK. So while Cameron looks to secure approval from his party's eurosceptics by pursuing a strategy based on foot-dragging and referring to the rulebook, the politicians watching Britain's unhelpful tantrum become more and more disgusted. It's a "point of principle", the government argues. Actually, for a PM whose long-term goal is a fundamental renegotiation, there is very little point to this fight at all.