Kenny meets chancellor for relaxed chat over dinner

Fri, Feb 24, 2012, 00:00

German leader’s series of informal meetings designed to help shape a long view on Europe

WHEN CHANCELLOR Angela Merkel received Taoiseach Enda Kenny for dinner yesterday evening, the fire was crackling in the grate of Meseberg Palace.

To the untrained eye Germany’s government guesthouse, an hour’s drive north of Berlin, looks like a pristine baroque palace. But behind the white stuccoed facade lies Angela Merkel’s future of Europe laboratory.

Over a dinner of Brandenburg duck and pear dessert, away from the Berlin bustle and crisis headlines, the German leader hosted what one adviser called a “relaxed circle, an informal exchange of views”.

Also attending were Latvian and Czech prime ministers, Valdis Dombrovksis and Petr Necas, meaning Mr Kenny was unlikely to raise Ireland’s promissory note issue between the beef broth and cheese platter. Previous guests at two recent similar dinners included leaders from Austria, Denmark, Portugal and Sweden.

With no formal agenda, and no pressure to magic up “breakthroughs” for waiting journalists, participants report that Dr Merkel is able to relax, enjoy a beer and listen.

“We had a very thorough exchange of views over current challenges but also the structures of structural and working methods of the EU in five to 10 years,” said one previous invitee, who asked not to be named.

The private dinners, another participant said, show Angela Merkel in her best and favourite position: leading from behind.

Berlin officials describe the dinners as an attempt to address Germany’s critics who accuse Dr Merkel of not moving quickly enough in the crisis and, at the same time, of moving too far, too fast.

There is a symbolism too: Meseberg is the Berlin republic’s nod to the Petersberg near Bonn, where Helmut Kohl and his predecessors earned Germany’s reputation of having an ear for smaller EU member states.

“It’s a listening exercise,” said Dr Ulrike Guérot of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s about finding out what leaders want with Europe, what they are ready to do – and ready to give up.” Well-briefed Meseberg guests took note of Dr Merkel’s recent remark that Europe is on an “irreversible course” towards a political and fiscal union.

It is yet far from clear what exactly this political fiscal union will entail and what it will not.

But with the Greek crisis now hopefully contained, the German leader is anxious not to lose recent reform momentum that, from the “Europlus pact” to the most recent inter-governmental fiscal treaty, has seen EU leaders agree to a lot more of Dr Merkel’s suggestions than they themselves ever expected at the outset.

In small steps, the chancellor wants to use the centrifugal force of the crisis to drive on further integration proposals that seem as unlikely now as debt brakes and budgetary supervision appeared just two years ago.

Ask what is on Berlin’s wish list and officials talk of EU tax co-ordination – though not full harmonisation – a real financial transaction tax and fully-fledged national budgetary supervision by the European Commission. Hand-in-hand with this, they see a real need for radical reform of European institutions to address the oft-cited democratic deficit.

Aware of Berlin’s influence – but conscious of its limitations, too – the chancellor’s invitation is about sounding out potential allies and likely rivals. The German leader is playing the long game, beyond the day-to-day crisis debate.

“It may surprise some, but Angela Merkel really has ambitions for Europe that go beyond delivering on eurobonds,” said one well-placed Berlin source. “She is a scientist of power and Meseberg is her laboratory.”