Merkel’s London message likely to fall short of British expectations

German leader to address parliament and meet Queen Elizabeth on high-profile visit

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel: has always been sympathetic to British prime minister David Cameron. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: has always been sympathetic to British prime minister David Cameron. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Thu, Feb 27, 2014, 01:00

German chancellor Angela Merkel gets the royal treatment in London today: a speech to both houses of parliament, lunch at Number 10 and tea with Queen

Such attention is flattering given many Germans’ long-held but unrequited love of all things British. Berlin officials are, however, alarmed at how British apathy has tipped over into frenzied analysis of the visit of a woman many British conservatives seem to view as their natural ally in their effort to reshape Europe.

Forced into expectation-management mode yesterday, her aides insisted the German leader would have little on offer in London today beyond tea and sympathy.

Sympathetic to Cameron
Despite their occasional quarrels, the East German-born leader has always been sympathetic to Cameron. She views him as a kindred spirit with a non-romantic view of Europe who, like her, pushed reform and economic competitiveness as the key to tackling the recent crisis.

The sympathy was clear during last year’s federal election when Merkel floated the idea of repatriating some EU competences back to member states. The German leader may well step up this rhetoric ahead of the European elections to limit voter defection to an upstart eurosceptic party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). What remains of these promises after the elections is another matter for, despite similar sensibilities, the two politicians are in different places at different times. 

David Cameron is a man in a hurry, under pressure to wring concessions from EU partners and make Britain’s membership a more palatable prospect ahead of a 2017 referendum. Angela Merkel is under no such pressure. Just into her third term, enjoying record support, confidantes say she is beginning to think about her European legacy – which will involve another European integration push rather than a pull-back to cater to Cameron’s domestic concerns.

And what are Britain’s concerns and demands? For all the heat and light in London, senior Berlin officials complain they are still no wiser as to what, precisely, London wants. Until then, Merkel is busy restarting the Franco-German motor. Recent events in Ukraine have underlined the urgency of working on even closer ties with Poland.

Gently, her British hosts will be disabused of their view of Merkel as Europe’s unofficial but absolute monarch. She has a grand coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, anxious to appear as europhile if not more so than Merkel’s own Christian Democrats. The Bundestag is becoming a greater check on her European power, thanks to crisis-era rulings by the powerful constitutional court. Its judges have issued rulings critical of the EU but, unlike British EU critics, the court insists further integration is possible, giving EU institutions greater democratic legitimacy.

Concessions to Britain
This dovetails with Merkel’s political ambition to complete economic and monetary union – or get as close as she can. While British EU critics demand more differentiated EU membership, the German leader last November called for a “new co-operation” between the commission and member states, offering more flexible but binding economic co-ordination she views as essential to complete the euro area.

This will require treaty change and, during these negotiations, she may be open to limited concessions and opt-outs to Britain – but nothing to weaken the EU.

Her euro crisis analysis is that, in a globalised world, there is no alternative to closer European integration – not for Germany and not for Britain. As she told a London audience on a 2012 visit: “You won’t be happy if you are alone in this world.”

Merkel is anxious to keep Britain on board but will not play midwife to an EU as envisaged by Tory backbenchers. Her party, her coalition partner, the constitutional court and her voters won’t let her. And so, to German eyes, the British EU debate rolls on like Merkel’s favourite television programme, Midsomer Murders : compelling if slightly anachronistic viewing, and a world away from reality.