17/06/2014 11:45 BST | Updated 17/08/2014 06:59 BST

Italian Tactics and (a Flawed) British Strategy


As the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, heads to Rome for a spot of lunch with Matteo Renzi on Wednesday, I've been sounding out Italian journalists, academics and apparatchiks about what we can expect from Italy's PM and David Cameron's supposed New Best Friend, as the Great EU Junckernaut rumbles ominously on.

I came away with a number of interesting reflections on the likely Italian tactics and a few depressing observations about Britain's flawed strategy on this matter, carried out with spectacularly clunky diplomacy, as perceived from the outside.

Here is what everyone is certain will not happen: Herman and Matteo will not stroll towards a bank of microphones and announce that either Jean-Claude or David can pop open the Champagne.

Renzi may at times seem to walk on water (getting 40 pc of the vote in an election where established parties in the UK barely mustered 24, 23 and 7pc respectively does that to someone's image) but he is not a magician. He is a very shrewd politician with a couple of cards to play, a limited time window and a central positon on a well-lit stage to play them in. The magic dust of Renzi's friendship and the hard currency of his vote, should it come to that, are currently on sale.

Renzi needs a letting up of the EU's relentless focus on austerity, which has pulled Italy back from the financial brink but left it battling abysmal levels of unemployment. He needs the new European Commission to agree to a work programme where the words 'jobs and growth' are well in evidence, led by someone, no matter who, who's happy to say those words loud and often. Renzi is also in the market for a prestigious portfolio for Italy's commissioner, who could be either Enrico Letta or Massimo D'Alema.

Neither of these concessions are in Cameron's gift. So Renzi's priority will not be to form whatever blocking minority Cameron imagines can save the day but to correctly interpret and carry our Angela Merkel's preferred course of action, while taking care not to upset anyone else.

There is a lot riding on the Italian Presidency, which begins on July the 1st, in terms of the country's external prestige and Renzi does not want to begin his six months at the helm of Europe overseeing a huge, bitter and protracted falling out. If such falling out is inevitable, he certainly doesn't want to be on the 'minority' side of it.

Now for the British strategy, as perceived from across the channel and on the other side of the Alps.

The people I spoke to were bewildered by Cameron's "inexplicable" decision to play the man and not the ball. The European Parliament, which has the final vote in appointing the Commission, played a blinder on EU leaders by nominating its candidates ahead of an EU Election that for the first time gave it a consultative role on the selection of such candidate.

But the Parliament's winning candidate was only ever going to be the person chosen to lead Belgian-style talks with the political groups and establish if a majority in his/her favour could be found.

When Cameron begun issuing threats, using the prospect of Brexit to blackmail others, he paradoxically made Juncker's position more secure. Instead of being set on a mission that may very well have failed, delivering someone else at the helm of the Commission, the world's most famous Luxembourger is now involved in an existential fight for his own political survival.

A fight in which he can claim the highest principles of democracy to be on his side against Britain's bullying obstreperousness.

The Prime Minister must be extremely careful now not to lose the European campaign for genuine reform in a desperate effort to win a domestic PR battle.

Forget the war on Juncker. Let him get the mandate to negotiate and let's see what happens in the European Parliament. If he is indeed selected don't fight that tide: you will lose or expend vital political capital for not very much in return.

The real prize is a realistic, forward-looking mandate for the Commission Juncker might end up leading, around which there is quite a lot of encouraging consensus already.

In fact stop giving the impression that everything is a battle, where we lure allies to 'our side' at the expense of others. The truth is most other big EU nations love and hate Europe in different ways and for different reasons but are deeply enmeshed in Europe nonetheless not 'just as a market' but as a monetary union, a cultural exercise, a historical necessity.

They will not heed calls for reform that seem tailored to reducing Europe - its scope maybe, some of its powers yes, not its totemic symbolism. They will heed calls for reform that reflect common sense more than the narrow national self-interest of one nation.

This, by the way, does not mean that the gap between Britain's notion of Europe and everyone else's is unbridgeable.

Britain remains better off in an Union which might not entirely, all the time, reflect exactly all its visions and aspirations provided it offers a platform to pursue most of its visions and aspirations most of the time, amplifying its power, its voice and its reach in the world into the bargain. That's what everyone else gets out of it too.

It would be truly foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater because we didn't like the particular make of the bathtub.