There are times when national leaders like to flaunt foreign visits as evidence of how welcome they are at the world’s top tables. There are other times when, for a variety of reasons, they would prefer that the folks back home did not notice. David Cameron’s family trip to Germany this past weekend would appear to fall into the second category. For all the picturesque backdrop of Schloss Meseberg in the sunshine, to describe the trip as low-key would be an understatement.
The best that can be said is that there appears to have been no disaster. The two leaders agreed on what they have always agreed upon: the need for the European Union to be more competitive and to expand trade with the rest of the world – though, when looked at in national terms, Germany is already rather more successful in this respect than Britain – and they considered some of the world’s most intractable trouble-spots: Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. Talking is always better than not talking.
On another subject, there was perhaps less meeting of minds. Angela Merkel, like her fellow Germans and many other Europeans, is exercised by the ease with which individuals and multinationals can avoid taxes. The UK government professes similar concern, without generally accepting what is widely believed elsewhere: that Britain and some of its dependent territories are among the most secretive tax havens of all. The subject will be aired again at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June.
Overall, though, the Meseberg meeting seems to have ended with little or no advance for Mr Cameron in his efforts to drum up allies for a comprehensive review of the European Union’s powers. And he needs such allies sooner rather than later, if he is to convince his Euro-sceptics that staying in the EU is in the UK’s interests. While some countries, like Germany, appear broadly sympathetic, there is so far no major EU member that has offered Mr Cameron support. And now, with the Eurozone crisis not over and Ms Merkel facing an election in the autumn, is not a good time for another bout of what could be seen as self-interested British boat-rocking.
All that said, it is hard not to feel just a little sorry for David Cameron and his so far hapless efforts to forge an EU that would be more to his and his party’s liking. Earlier this year, his much-vaunted Europe speech was delayed several times, then finally delivered in London rather than Amsterdam, after the Algerian hostage-emergency took precedence. Last week, his series of Europe visits was derailed almost as soon as it had started by the announcement of Baroness Thatcher’s death. Mr Cameron cut short his talks in Spain and cancelled his visit to France altogether.
While the weekend meeting in Germany went ahead, the timing was far from ideal. Mr Cameron might have preferred to look statesmanlike abroad rather than spend more days at home being compared with Lady Thatcher, but he was damned either way. What might in other circumstances have been presented as the signal honour of being entertained en famille at the Chancellor’s official country residence risked recalling Lady Thatcher’s uneasy relationship with then Chancellor Helmut Kohl and her instinctive hostility to German reunification. Nor would the contrast, at least in the eyes of Conservative Eurosceptics, have been to Mr Cameron’s advantage.
The Prime Minister could be tempted to dismiss the turn of recent events as just more evidence that his dealings with Europe are jinxed. After so many setbacks, however, he might do better to ask whether it is only bad timing, or whether it is his project itself that is flawed.
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