Merkel delivers political master class in London

The chancellor’s words were perfectly clear but Conservatives may choose not to listen

Chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron at Downing Street yesterday. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalagaw/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron at Downing Street yesterday. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalagaw/WPA Pool/Getty Images


One of the two huge paintings that hang in the Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament is The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the Battle of Waterloo , marking the final act of a battle that decided Europe’s fate for a century.

The painting records the Duke and the Commander shaking hands, the Prussians having swung the balance Wellington’s way. In the days before German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to London yesterday, some on the British side had fevered expectations that she would so the same for David Cameron.

In English, which she tends not to do by choice; Merkel quickly, but politely, disabused them: “I have been told many times during the last few days that there are very special expectations of my speech here today.

“Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment.”

Queen of Europe
The visit lasted seven hours. It ended with tea in Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II. However, the British did everything to make her visit little short of a Royal visitation. Indeed, she was asked near its end what it felt like to be “Queen of Europe”.

The powerful chancellor coated her words in honey, praising the United Kingdom’s role in history: “What would have become of Europe if the people of this country – your country – had not put up such courageous resistance, part of the time standing all alone?

“What would have been the consequences if you had not found the strength to protect your way of life and to keep alive the hopes of all the nations of Europe for a better future in freedom? The United Kingdom has no need to furnish proof of its commitment to Europe.”

No doubt, her sentiments are genuine. Unlike most in the hall, Merkel, who was 35 when the Berlin Wall collapsed, has known life without freedom, remembering her first, joy-filled visit to London a summer later.

There, she and her husband went to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, the symbol of free speech and everything that East Germany was not, Merkel remembered, even more so than the House of Commons.

For No 10 Downing Street, her words about restricting welfare benefit tourism, a greater focus on the need for EU competitiveness and less EU interference in matters best handled by national governments were received with welcome. Equally, she spoke about cutting red-tape.

However, the German leader gave numerous warnings, even if she bent over backwards to be polite about it, that Britain cannot get a singular deal that offers it lots of concessions, effectively à la carte membership.

Merkel knows what she wants: greater integration amongst the euro zone countries to ensure that the euro zone crisis does not happen again. Eventually, all of this would have to be covered by a new treaty.

But she gave no hint that this would happen by 2017, the deadline that Cameron has imposed upon himself to get “a new deal for Britain”, which he then intends to put to voters in an In/Out referendum.

Concessions to London will come, but they will be on the margins; not on anything that damages the core of the EU, or on its ability to project the voices of all of its member states on the world stage.

The Chancellor’s words, delivered to a crowded hall filled with ministers, backbench MPs and members of the House of Lords, were perfectly clear. The question is whether Conservatives, particularly, will want both to understand and to hear them.

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