Merkel tries to soothe British concerns on EU

German chancellor seeks to dampen expectations, saying she cannot satisfy all wishes

Angela Merkel is applauded by House of Lords speaker Baroness D’Souza and House of Commons speaker John Simon Bercow after delivering her speech to both houses of parliament at Westminster. Photograph: Gerry Penny/EPA

Angela Merkel is applauded by House of Lords speaker Baroness D’Souza and House of Commons speaker John Simon Bercow after delivering her speech to both houses of parliament at Westminster. Photograph: Gerry Penny/EPA

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 01:00

German chancellor Angela Merkel offered hopes to British prime minister David Cameron that European Union welfare benefit rules could be tightened but, on a one-day visit to London yesterday, ruled out fundamental reforms of free movement rules.

Despite inflated British hopes before the visit, Dr Merkel made no reference to a speedy renegotiation of EU treaties, which Mr Cameron needs if he is secure major concessions for the UK before a 2017 referendum.

Quoting a 30-year-old speech from former German president Richard von Weizsacker, Dr Merkel said, in a speech to both houses of parliament in Westminster, the EU would have a voice in global affairs only “if they go together”.

She repeatedly sought to soothe British concerns about the EU, praising Britain for having stood against tyranny in the second World War.

“Britain has no need to burnish its credentials,” she said.


Balancing act
Dr Merkel attempted a balancing act throughout. The EU should become more efficient, more competitive, but its member states are more powerful on the world stage if they speak together, she said.

Opening her speech in English, she quickly sought to dampen expectations, saying that those who believed she would satisfy “all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes” would be disappointed.

“Others are expecting the exact opposite and they are hoping that I will deliver the clear and simple message here in London that the rest of Europe is not prepared to pay almost any price to keep Britain in the European Union. I am afraid these hopes will be dashed too.I find myself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. That is not a pleasant position to be in – at least not for a German head of government.”

On freedom of movement, she tried during her speech and later in Downing Street to deliver a subtle message: “A Europe without borders is one of the greatest achievements of European unification. All member states, all citizens benefit from this. But it is also true that, to maintain and preserve this freedom of movement and gain acceptance for it from our citizens, even today, we need to muster the courage to point out mistakes and tackle them.”

Reforms could happen but they centre on national welfare qualifying rules – which is a controversial issue in Germany as well as the UK – rather than anything that could hinder the freedom for 500 million people to live anywhere in the EU.

During a press conference at Downing Street, Dr Merkel appeared to offer quotes the prime minister could draw on in coming months to emphasise the closeness of his ties with Berlin, a crucial element in his efforts to persuade voters that he can secure concessions.

Freedom of movement, she said, is not the freedom to claim benefits: “[That] would not be the interpretation of freedom of movement that I would have. That is just as much of a headache for us in Germany as it is for the British people. No country in Europe will be able to stand such an onslaught, because we have very different social security systems.”


Gulf in thinking
However, the gulf in thinking between London and Berlin was evident in the opinions expressed by both leaders about the future direction of the EU, given Mr Cameron’s desire to alter some of the EU’s credos.

Insisting the UK was an important partner for Germany, Dr Merkel said: “We have to tackle the great challenges of our times together. Individually and on our own I am deeply convinced that we will achieve less than if we stand together.

“Our ideas of how the future European Union will look like may vary on the details but we – Germany and Britain – share the goal of seeing a strong, competitive European Union join forces. United and determined we can defend our European economic and social model in the world.

“United and determined we can bring our values and interests to bear in the world. United and determined we can serve as a model for other regions of the world. This and nothing less than this should be our common goal,” she said.

The seven-hour visit included a meeting with Labour leader Ed Miliband. It ended with tea at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth – a privilege accorded to few heads of government on brief visits to London.