Channel NewsAsia

Cameron's eurosceptic reshuffle boosts 'Brexit' risk

David Cameron has dramatically hardened his government's eurosceptic stance for a battle with Brussels, but may have weakened his hand while increasing the risk that Britain could crash out of the EU, analysts said.

LONDON: David Cameron has dramatically hardened his government's eurosceptic stance for a battle with Brussels, but may have weakened his hand while increasing the risk that Britain could crash out of the EU, analysts said. In a major purge of his cabinet on Tuesday, the British prime minister named Philip Hammond as his new foreign secretary, picking a man who has said he would vote for Britain to exit the bloc in its current state.

Cameron then puzzled commentators by overlooking several big-hitters and picking a largely unknown ex-public relations man, Jonathan Hill, to be Britain's next European Commissioner. Analysts say neither move will boost Cameron's hopes of renegotiating Britain's relationship with the European Union before holding an in-out referendum in 2017, as he has vowed to do if he is re-elected next year.

They could even push Britain closer to an accidental "Brexit", a situation that Conservative Cameron has said he does not want, as he supports membership of a reformed, less federal EU. "The danger of a political accident, in the sense that you have a No vote in a potential referendum, that danger has increased," Janis Emmanouilidis of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre told AFP.

Cameron's reshuffle raised eyebrows in Brussels as it happened on the eve of an EU leaders' summit at which key European jobs are likely to be decided. William Hague's replacement as foreign secretary by the grey figure of Hammond was one of several moves in Cameron's cabinet reshuffle pointing to a more eurosceptic mood.

French-speaking europhile Attorney General Dominic Grieve was also pushed out, reportedly because he was seen as blocking plans to pull Britain from the European Convention of Human Rights. The resignation of veteran pro-Europe figures such as Ken Clarke was also a blow, said Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe think-tank in London. "I think it will be interpreted in Europe as raising the stakes and showing that this is now getting more serious," Persson said.

The reshuffle was mainly driven by political pressures at home, where the anti-EU UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage threatens to take seats from the Conservatives in Britain's May 2015 election. Cameron had "slightly increased the danger" of Britain leaving the EU by creating a "markedly more eurosceptic government," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London.

He said Hammond was "a couple of notches more eurosceptic than Hague" and pointed out the new minister's comment in May 2013 that if a referendum were held then he would vote to leave the EU. "In his favour he is a rational man... he is not a romantic or crazed eurosceptic," Grant said.

But Cameron would "lose some credibility" with leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have said they want to keep Britain in the EU. Cameron was also seen as thumbing his nose at Brussels by nominating a lightweight as European commissioner. "There will be a lot of people checking Lord Hill's Wikipedia page in Brussels," said Persson of Jonathan Hill, formerly the leader of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British parliament.

Britain's current commissioner Catherine Ashton had the same job as Hill before she won the relatively prime post of EU diplomatic chief. Hill also has some experience of Europe, having worked with former prime minister John Major at the time of Britain's withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, before going on to work for a public relations company.

But compared with predecessors such as Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Chris Patten, Hill is little known in London or Brussels. Embarrassingly it emerged that Hill had declared "non, non, non" in French when asked a month ago if he would accept the job.

Cameron's "shocking" choice of Hill could weaken what influence Britain still has in the EU, while making it harder for Britain to get one of the senior commission posts it wants, said Hylke Dijkstra, Marie Curie Fellow at Oxford University. Overall, Cameron's decisions were more likely to cause problems than solve them, said Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Centre. "Cameron is maneouvering himself into a corner at a European level and at home," he said.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia