Angela Merkel dashed the hopes of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs today, by declaring that she would not support Britain if it seeks a fundamental revision of the EU’s governing treaties.
Addressing MPs and peers at Westminster, the German Chancellor sought to lower what she regards as the unrealistic expectations that Britain will be able to repatriate a raft of powers from Brussels before the in/out referendum on EU membership David Cameron has promised in 2017.
The most powerful player on the EU stage said: “Some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I am afraid they are in for a disappointment.”
But in a carefully balanced address, she added: "Others are expecting the exact opposite and they are hoping that I will deliver the clear and simple message here in London that the rest of Europe is not prepared to pay almost any price to keep Britain in the EU. I am afraid these hopes will be dashed.”
Mrs Merkel’s speech highlighted the headache that the Prime Minister will face in trying to “sell” continued EU membership to his own MPs. However, she took a more conciliatory line later when she appeared alongside Mr Cameron at a Downing Street press conference.
While defending the EU’s tablet of stone on the free movement of people, she made clear Germany shared the British Government’s concerns about “benefit tourism.” That offered Mr Cameron a possible “selling point” to his own party and the British people when he seeks a new deal after next year’s general election.
The German Chancellor expressed optimism that a way could be found to keep Britain in the 28-nation club, saying this was “doable” and recalling that difficult negotiations on the EU budget had shown that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
But she admitted: "It is not a piece of cake, it will be a lot of work.”
Cameron allies took comfort from Mrs Merkel’s press conference remarks, saying her toughest language was reserved for the Eurosceptic MPs in her Westminster audience, rather than the Prime Minister.
She called for the EU to become "stronger, more stable and more competitive than it is today… United and determined we can bring our values and interests to bear in the world. United and determined we can serve as a model for other regions of the world. This and nothing less than this should be our common goal. I regard it as the task for our generation.”
Crucially, Mrs Merkel added: "In order to attain this goal we need a strong UK with a strong voice inside the EU.”
Mr Cameron emphasised his goal of wanting Britain to be “a positive player in a reformed EU” – one not shared by the many Tory MPs who want to pull out. He told the joint press conference: "I have great confidence the sorts of changes that we're talking about are achievable and will be achieved over the coming years.”
Significantly, the pro-European minority of Tory MPs were quick to praise Mrs Merkel’s speech. Laura Sandys, of the European Mainstream group, said: “I was very pleased to hear her recognise the fact that by working with our allies, such as Germany, the UK is not only influential in Europe, but plays a key role in making the EU more flexible and competitive for the 21 century”.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats also welcomed her speech. Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “The gap between what Chancellor Merkel was offering, and what David Cameron’s Eurosceptic backbenchers are demanding, remains as wide as ever."
What Merkel said... and what she meant
“Some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes… they are in for a disappointment.”
I didn’t get where I am today by rolling over and conceding what the other side wants before the negotiations have begun. Young Cameron will thank me later for lowering expectations.
“If we are serious about change, we will find the legal mechanisms to do so.”
David needs to wake up and smell the Kaffee. I am good but I am not a Wunderwerker. Rewriting the EU treaties would mean a veto for the Maltese and another ghastly referendum in Ireland. It cannot be done.
“A Europe without borders is one of the greatest achievements of European unification. All member states, all citizens benefit from this.”
That’s the sort of thing we continentals always say, but watch what we actually do. We imposed transitional controls on Poles, and you didn’t.
“It is also true that, to maintain and preserve this freedom of movement and gain acceptance for it from our citizens, even today, we need to muster the courage to point out mistakes and tackle them.”
Your Prime Minister wants to fight an election promising to restrict free movement of workers. This is contrary to the sacred creed of Europeanism, but “mistakes were made” could mean we don’t have enough freedom of movement or we have too much.
“Standstill may quickly turn into setback. Or to use a famous quotation of Winston Churchill, ‘To be perfect is to change often’.”
This is what we know in Germany as a joke.
“We Germans shall never forget that we owe the happy and prosperous development of our country to the readiness of our European partners and friends to forgive.”
We Germans are very different indeed from you, and we look at the EU completely differently. I do hope that this will penetrate the Eurosceptic dreamworld in which many of you live.
“United and determined … this and nothing less than this should be our common goal. In order to attain this goal we need a strong United Kingdom with a strong voice inside the European Union.”
I will help your Prime Minister – if he is re-elected – to present cosmetic changes to you in a referendum so that you will stay and we can carry on as before.