In a Pew Research Center poll last year designed to test European stereotypes, the British public ranked Germans as the most trustworthy in Europe. They also considered them the least compassionate. As David Cameron rolls out the red carpet for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to London today, should he expect an honest lack of sympathy toward his ambitions to reform the EU?
The best the British prime minister can hope for is sympathy within limits. The German position has been as clear as it could be given the vagueness of David Cameron’s demands ahead of his proposed EU referendum. Germany unequivocally wants the UK to remain in the EU. It is willing to consider reforms which address some of Britain’s concerns (many of which it shares).
But Germany will not keep Britain in at any cost. Nor indeed could it. Despite the narrative of German primacy in the EU, reforms still require agreement among the 28 member states. What Cameron wants is not simply Merkel’s, or Germany’s, to give. Her support is necessary but not sufficient, and she too operates from within the restrictions of a coalition.
Still, the UK-Germany relationship is in pretty good health. The bilateral economic relationship is booming, with Britain overtaking France at the beginning of 2013 as Germany’s largest bilateral trading partner. And, by most accounts, Cameron and Merkel enjoy a warm relationship. They have moved on from the frustration brought about by the Conservative Party’s withdrawal from the European People’s Party, the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament that includes the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union.
Both share a commitment to fiscal conservatism and they made effective common cause last year to prevent an increase in the EU budget. British officials recognize Germany’s dominance within the EU and are determined to strengthen bilateral ties. Germany meanwhile wants an active Britain in the EU as a balance to the more statist instincts of France and others, although there is frustration that Britain currently negotiates inside the EU with ‘its hand on the door handle’, as European Council President Herman van Rompuy put it.
This British-German summit may help build momentum around reform in some of the areas that are priorities for Britain. Angela Merkel is supportive of changing the EU treaties, in order to clarify and codify the rules of an integrating eurozone, potentially giving Cameron opportunity to argue for his own changes – although there is no guarantee this will fit with his 2017 referendum timetable. There is likely to be support in both countries for increasing the influence of national parliaments in EU decision-making, probably by giving coalitions of national parliaments greater power to block European laws. Similarly, both countries want to limit the number and effects of European regulation on business in a drive to improve competitiveness.
Perhaps most important for Britain in the long term is to prevent non-euro states from being dominated by a more integrated eurozone bloc. The fear is that the UK could be in a permanent minority, particularly in votes on the Single Market, including on financial regulations. There seems to be some sympathy in Berlin for the UK position, and the so called ‘double majority’ voting system – whereby new rules must be approved by majorities of both eurozone and non-eurozone members − agreed for the European Banking Authority could serve as a model for other areas.
But a broader challenge for David Cameron in pushing forward a package of reforms is the disjuncture between his two different audiences. On the one hand, he wants to appease the Eurosceptics at home, both in his own rebellious party and in sections of the British public that are flirting with voting for UKIP. On the other, he wants to win support from other EU leaders, most importantly the German chancellor, to help push through the reforms he seeks.
The narrative he is pursuing to dilute the appeal of UKIP does not help him win allies elsewhere in the EU. Whereas a pragmatic case for making the EU more competitive and streamlined, which is often laden with the technical jargon of European reform, is not enough to satisfy his right flank at home. The clash was illustrated in angry exchanges with Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski last month over the rights of Polish and other EU citizens to claim benefits in the UK.
Merkel’s visit to Britain brings this difficulty front and centre. Cameron must avoid making a case for Britain getting special treatment, and focus instead on providing a vision for a reformed EU. The former just plays into German stereotypes of Britain: it turns out Germans think Britons are the least compassionate too.
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