Marsh on Monday: Why Merkel will do almost anything to keep U.K. in the EU
For Angela Merkel, Europe is suddenly looking a lonely place. Euroskepticism is on the march. She needs allies, too, maybe as much as those disgracefully insular British do.
This one of the reasons why the German chancellor gave David Cameron, the re-elected British prime minister, some impressive support over Europe reforms at their Friday meeting in Berlin. Many of the changes proposed by the U.K. to make EU economies more competitive, decision-making more transparent and policies more aligned with voters’ interests overlap closely with Germany’s own stance.
Accommodating London to keep it tethered to Europe is anchored in German thinking.
Whether on action to curb a disruptive tide of migrants from other parts of Europe, or on steps to make Europe less bureaucratic, Merkel’s message to Cameron was that she understood the British position. Despite all the talk about the sacrosanct nature of EU principles on free movement of people, here was Merkel breezily asserting that changing treaties was “not impossible.”
Germany wants to be a “constructive partner” for Britain, she continued, and “work very closely together” on renegotiations. To top it she inserted a proverb that’s identical on both sides of the channel: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Gone was the hard edge of many German comments about Britain’s presumed EU obstinacy and its perceived inclination to always look for a British “Sonderweg,” a separate EU route for the U.K.
This was not just a sentimental lurch in favor of the British PM. There is rationality and history behind the chancellor’s stance.
The latest ripples in a political tide sweeping through Europe have not been kind to Merkel. In Poland, the euroskeptic Andrzej Duda swept to victory in the May 24 presidential election. Merkel’s allies in Spain, the ruling Popular party, lost heavily in municipal polls on the same day, which saw a surge of support for two newcomer parties, anti-austerity Podemos and centrist Ciudadanos.
Also read: Spain’s protest vote a sign of a fracturing eurozone
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, provided he can overcome political and judicial hurdles to his candidacy, looks increasingly likely to resurface in the Elysée Palace after the next presidential poll in April-May 2017, in a new and distinctly harder-line guise.
On May 31, Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, suffered a setback in regional elections with his center-left Democratic party losing a key governorship in the Northwest and populist parties performing well in several regional contests
At a larger level, geopolitics looms large.
In Greece, chaos reigns over bailout talks. Merkel, despite or perhaps because of her upbringing in East Germany, is an old-school Christian Democrat who dislikes too much change. Yet it’s anyone’s guess whether Greece will default, bring in a parallel currency and/or quit the euro in the next few months. Russia and Ukraine remain a tinderbox.
Does Merkel want to risk losing Britain, too, as well as Greece and Ukraine, as one of the highlights of her chancellorship? That is a consideration working in Cameron’s favor.
But more is involved here than the problems of the present day. Irrespective of the Franco-German partnership, one of Germany’s overriding interests since the Second World War has been to maintain a close rapport with Britain, a country too steeped in diplomatic expertise, commitment to free markets and an open world view to ignore. The German business community — whether bigger or smaller companies — would be greatly upset if Britain left the EU.
While France served as the emotional pillar for Germany’s reconfiguration after the war, Britain was the rational anchor in a confusingly checkered world. Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor, was frequently vexed by Britain’s mixed signals towards the emerging European community. But he knew intuitively how much would be at stake if Germany lost the British as partners.
Accommodating London to keep it tethered to Europe is anchored in German thinking. That arch-European Helmut Kohl lent a hand to John Major in 1991-92 over the Maastricht opt-out. Back in the days of Helmut Schmidt and James Callaghan in 1978-79, Britain was allowed to join the European Monetary System but exempted from the exchange-rate mechanism.
What Merkel might have had in mind when she averred that treaty change was “not impossible” is a matter for conjecture.
Her confidant David McAllister, one-time prime minister of Lower Saxony, now a member of the European Parliament, indicated after the Berlin talks that the solution to the British grievances lay in the direction of protocols and opt-outs. Appended to existing treaties this would probably be good enough for Cameron — if not for his more rightwing backbenchers — although it would not conform to a strict definition of treaty change.
Treaty change proper is at present unthinkable in the 28-member EU. But there are other ways to a solution. Merkel and Cameron are on the right path to finding it.