The “reddest of red carpets” will be rolled out for Angela Merkel’s visit to London this week. Not only will she be addressing both Houses of Parliament (the first German Chancellor to do so since 1986), she will also have tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. In between come talks with the Prime Minister – about Ukraine, of course, but also about the future of the EU. Hence the lavish welcome: David Cameron has backed himself into a corner and he hopes that Europe’s Iron Lady can extricate him.
Under pressure from squalling Tory Eurosceptics eyeing Ukip with increasing interest, the Prime Minister’s original intention to “repatriate” powers from Brussels morphed into a commitment to an in/out referendum in 2017 (assuming an election win in 2015, of course). The problem for Mr Cameron is that he has seen sense and wants Britain to remain in the EU; but, in order to campaign on that basis, he needs some high-profile success in his efforts to tip the balance back towards national governments. It is here that his famously cordial relations with Europe’s most powerful leader comes in.
The German Chancellor is certainly sympathetic. Notwithstanding her annoyance over Mr Cameron’s peremptory withdrawal of the Tories from the European Parliament’s conservative bloc in 2005, and his surprise veto of a key EU treaty at the height of the euro crisis in 2011, he is regarded in the light of a “naughty nephew” – or so, at least, some at Downing Street claim. Between the gift of a box-set of Midsomer Murders (a Merkel favourite) and the Cameron family invitation to the Chancellor’s country retreat at Schloss Meseberg, it would seem there is some real mutual warmth. But it is not just a matter of personal chemistry. Ms Merkel will tell Parliament that she wants Britain in Europe because it is the truth. It is almost as much in Germany’s interests to avoid a UK exit as it is in our own. The withdrawal of one of its weightiest members would be a body-blow to EU prestige and influence. We are Germany’s biggest trading partner and the two countries have a common conception of a more open, free-trading Europe. Ms Merkel also shares a number of Mr Cameron’s specific concerns, over excessive regulation, say, and so-called benefits tourism. Indeed, there are even whispers in Berlin about an offer of treaty changes (albeit on a limited basis).
But neither the Prime Minister nor the Eurosceptics should celebrate too soon. With the travails of the eurozone still so far from resolved, Ms Merkel has more pressing European concerns to attend to. More importantly, she cannot speak for all. There are 26 other states with which any changes will also need to be negotiated, and many of them want more Europe, not less. Most tellingly of all, there is little support from France. And, in fact, even Germany’s apparent concordance starts to disintegrate up close. Where Mr Cameron hopes for a rethink of the free movement of people to assuage immigration concerns, for example, Ms Merkel is a staunch supporter of the principle.
There was, has always been, and will remain an unbridgeable gulf between what Eurosceptics want and what Europe can or will concede. Angela Merkel could not change that, even if she wanted to.