Quentin Peel
Associate Fellow, Europe Programme
What should be a close partnership is poisoned by a fundamental difference in views on the EU’s future.
UK Prime Minister, David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a joint press conference at 10 Downing Street on 27 February 2014. Photo by Getty Images.UK Prime Minister, David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a joint press conference at 10 Downing Street on 27 February 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

A second visit by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to London in less than a year is a clear sign of the determined effort both the UK and Germany are making to understand each other better.

It is high time they did so. In spite of the fact that, as leading members of the European Union, the two countries have a host of issues on which they need to find common ground, relations have been bedevilled for years by mutual misunderstanding. Most recently, David Cameron, the UK prime minister, made a fool of himself in seeking to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission; he was confident of having the backing of Berlin, only to find that Ms Merkel was on the other side.

On the face of it, there should be no problem. The two countries are not only partners in the EU. They are also allies in NATO, and share a strong common commitment to the transatlantic alliance. They are strong supporters of free trade, open markets and strict enforcement of fair competition. Both governments are very keen to see early agreement on TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently being negotiated by the EU and US.

In addition, both Merkel and Cameron come from centre-right political parties, and they enjoy a good personal chemistry. In spite of the fact that Cameron took his Conservative Party out of the European People’s Party alliance in the European Parliament – the group to which Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union belongs – the German chancellor has gone out of her way to maintain close personal ties with her counterpart in Downing Street.

So what has gone wrong in recent years? Inevitably, the answer lies in their very different perceptions of the way ahead in the EU. To put it most simply, Cameron sees the EU as a problem, while she sees it as a solution. He wants more repatriation of powers to Westminster, and ‘less Europe’. Merkel sees the EU, and closer integration in the eurozone, as providing a potential solution to current crises. She is happy to see ‘more Europe’. Their positions are always hard to reconcile.

The official reason for the chancellor’s visit to London is to discuss the agenda for the next G7 summit to be held in Germany in June. That means focusing on the state of the world economy, action on climate change, and how to deal with Russia. The unofficial reason is that it will enable Cameron to demonstrate his good relationship with Europe’s most powerful politician before the May general election – but far enough ahead for it not to be politically embarrassing for Merkel.

They are in broad agreement on policy towards Russia, but even here the EU question pervades. Both regard the intervention of Vladimir Putin in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as dangerously destabilizing, and both have backed the imposition of sanctions in response, with Merkel taking the lead and Cameron backing her. Privately, the UK prime minister admits that if it were not for the EU, it would have been impossible to agree a common policy towards Moscow. But publicly he will not say so, for fear of angering his Eurosceptic back-benchers.

The one subject both of them would love to resolve – the EU reform agenda Cameron will seek to negotiate in Brussels before he calls his promised in-out referendum on British membership, and how far Merkel will back him – is likely to be left on the back-burner. It is simply too dangerous to be specific in the run-up to an election.

But the chancellor will want reassurance that Cameron will not be bounced into making election promises on EU reform that he knows he cannot deliver. Questioning the principle of free movement of EU citizens is one of them. Embarking on a major renegotiation of the EU treaties is another.

The word in Berlin is that Merkel will do ‘whatever she can’ to ensure that the UK remains a member of the EU. But there is a warning attached: that she cannot hope to emulate Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, and promise to do ‘whatever it takes’. It is a warning that the prime minister would be wise to heed if he hopes to deliver an acceptable reform package to be put to a UK referendum.

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