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There are more obvious ways of soothing a pan-continental eruption of euroscepticism than handing the keys to the European Commission to a federalist Luxembourger. So Britain is right to oppose Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy to be president. He incarnates the high-handedness and integrationist zeal that so many voters punished in last month’s European elections. He probably has Ode to Joy as his ringtone. And London’s campaign to stop the Junckernaut is not without encouragement from other capitals.
The problem is that, once again, British policy is reactive. Members of David Cameron’s government do a manful job of pretending that his interventions in European matters – withdrawing his Conservatives from the European Parliament’s centre-right caucus, vetoing a fiscal pact, promising a referendum on membership – were things he wanted to do all along. In truth, they were improvised under duress. His party would not have worn anything less.
There is no shame in this; politicians must be fluid and respect their circumstances. But this is a government that aspires to revise the basic terms of EU membership – 27 other countries will need persuading. It might turn out to be Britain’s biggest diplomatic project since it helped to design the postwar world at Bretton Woods and Yalta. Good reflexes will not be enough. Mr Cameron has to impose himself on events, not just supply a twist at the end. A nimble tactician will have his strategic prowess tested.
FCO not NGO
Politics tends to narrow to the domestic as a general election approaches but foreign policy is everywhere. Aside from the EU, there are crises in Ukraine and Iraq. Through history or national interest, Britain is connected to all this.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office does hard work in these places, with tangible results. But it has also developed a taste for the ephemeral side of diplomacy. It spends a lot of time putting its name to “campaigns” on “issues” and letting us know with bludgeoning regularity via social media. These causes are right and important; ending sexual violence is one of them. There is a respectable case for using British power to intervene directly to stop such depredations.
Still, this incontinent petition-signing and slogan-tweeting is really the business of an non-governmental organisation. The Foreign Office has allowed itself to be cowed by suggestions that it is too fusty for the modern world. But rarefied diplomacy is what it is there for – and what it is world-class at doing. The modern add-ons are as jarring and pointless as go-faster stripes on a Bentley. Press officials on this and you will hear waffle about a “networked world”, as if they are trying to persuade themselves.
World Cup fever
The exquisite torture of anticipation ends tonight, when Brazil and Croatia play the inaugural game of the World Cup. After profitably betting on Spain at the last tournament, and the past two European Championships, I am keeping my money on La Roja.
Having long seen off all other sports for global primacy, the only threat menacing football is cynicism. Too big, too rich, people say. The next World Cup but one, in Qatar, was seemingly awarded for the basest reasons. Brazilians living hard lives can be forgiven for viewing this tournament as a decadent circus.
The spectacle of the next month will itself be a rebuttal but here is another: 203 nations from six continents tried to qualify for Brazil over a period of two years. The 32 that made it span the economic spectrum from Honduras to Switzerland. Individual teams are worlds unto themselves: Belgium are a gifted band of immigrants’ sons; Germany have absorbed players of Turkish, Polish and Ghanaian descent as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Many of the players began their lives without hope, in Parisian banlieues or nameless towns in the Brazilian interior. If they are lavishly paid now, it is because they excel at a sport that hundreds of millions of people choose to spend money on. There are no talentless rich kids coasting along in this game because of a school tie or a family connection. When another industry comes close to matching football’s diversity and life-changing meritocracy, the cynicism it attracts will be easier to take. Until then, enjoy what you are about to see.
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