Other than the revelation that politicians like to use bad language (hardly a shock to Coffee House readers), what have we learned from the tapes, leaked to Polish magazine Wprost, of Polish government ministers and officials? The tapes include conversations about Britain’s European policy, and they are not complimentary. Open Europe have translated the key exchanges, and offered some points here, but here are a few further thoughts:
1. Senior Polish politicians are resigned to Britain leaving the EU in 2017. Former Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski discuss David Cameron’s EU strategy, with Rostowski concluding that ‘I think it’ll be the case that [Cameron] will lose the elections. Great Britain will leave.’ He also says he thinks this will be bad for Poland, but both men seem unwilling to agree to the renegotiation.
2. Cameron’s European strategy appears – to these politicians at least – ill-thought-through. Sikorski, who was in London last week (like Cameron he’s a Bullingdon Club graduate) describes the PM’s decision to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU as ‘either a very badly through-through move or, not for the first time, a kind of incompetence in European affairs.’ Worse is to come, I’m afraid – these Bullingdon alumni can be very rude about each other.
‘Remember? He fucked up the fiscal pact. He fucked it up. Simple as that. He is not interested, he does not get it, he believes in the stupid propaganda, he stupidly tries to play the system… his whole strategy of feeding [his critics] scraps in order to satisfy them is (just as I predicted) turning against him’ You know, his whole strategy of feeding them scraps in order to satisfy them is just as I predicted, turning against him; he should have said: “fuck off!”. Tried to convince people and isolate [the sceptics]. But he ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him.’
Of course, Cameron never really wanted to be in this position. His promise of a renegotiation followed by a referendum was not one he set out to make when seeking election as leader of the Conservative party and then as Prime Minister. His party bounced him into this, regardless of his own thoughts.But Sikorski’s ‘kind of incompetence in European affairs’ line is far more damaging. It is the tag that Cameron fears because he must give the impression that he knows how to get what he wants from European leaders.
But as James revealed in the magazine in January 2013, Cameron has mis-read signals from Angela Merkel before, and ended up in a mess: he thought she’d given the impression that she was significant to his predicament at a lunch in 2011, but found to his horror that she ganged up on him with Nicholas Sarkozy, leading to his ‘veto’ in December 2011. His wranglings over Jean-Claude Juncker, in which he started out so confident that he’d block the candidate, and is now only saying he plans to go down fighting, suggest he may have mis-read Merkel again.
3. David Cameron has managed to offend Polish politicians. The furious exchange between Pawel Gras, Donald Tusk’s spokesman, and Jacek Krawiec, the head of the country’s largest oil and gas conglomerate, shows that the focus on benefit tourism has not gone down well at all.
Krawiec: ‘What the fuck are they on about with these benefits? [Cameron] seems really sensible bloke… when I met him in London he talked a lot of sense.’
Gras: ‘Thoughtless, probably suggested by [some spin doctor] probably came from some focus group, he didn’t think through the consequences, the whole thing was stupid, Donald called him at once to discuss it, he had such a go at him, I mean it’s a shame we didn’t record it, he had a such a proper fucking go at him.’
Benefit tourism is not as widespread a problem as voters think, yet because the polls show that voters think it is a more widespread problem than it is, politicians in this country feel they must make a noise about it. The problem is that this clearly does not go unnoticed in the countries these ‘benefit tourists’ hail from, and what might seem to be a smart political move now could offend potential allies for the more important renegotiation later. Cameron clearly has some patching up to do with Poland, if not elsewhere, before he can be quite so confident that he’ll get what he wants from his renegotiation.