Berlin gives UK hope of treaty change before referendum

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier refuses to rule out renegotiation before planned vote on EU membership

Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier looks on as his British counterpart William Hague addresses a press conference in London. Photograph:  Reuters/Ben Stansall

Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier looks on as his British counterpart William Hague addresses a press conference in London. Photograph: Reuters/Ben Stansall

 


Germany offered the UK some hope it may be able to renegotiate its EU membership when Berlin declined not rule out the possibility of treaty change by 2017.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking alongside his British counterpart William Hague in London, said that the EU debate about treaty change is “a lot more complex” than saying the British want change and the French “can’t conceive of any”.

Last week, French president François Hollande dealt a blow to British hopes when he rejected the possibility of a new treaty by 2017, saying it was not a priority.

Mr Steinmeier, pressed to say if treaty change could happen by 2017, said: “I can’t make any predictions on this. I have tried to give you an overview of the discussions going on in Europe. Opinions vary that much that I can’t predict anything.”

The issue has become increasingly significant for the UK. Mr Cameron, if re-elected in 2015, has pledged to hold a referendum and has no prospect of offering significant concessions without treaty change.


Euro zone integration
Germany wants treaty change, but only to copper-fasten further integration among euro zone countries. Mr Hollande, however, fears this would trigger a referendum before he seeks re-election in 2017.

Following the talks in London yesterday, Mr Hague emphasised that both Berlin and the UK wanted to see stronger economic growth and strongly backed the EU single market.

Questioned about his past declarations that Eurosceptics were “brainless”, Mr Steinmeier tactfully declined to include British Conservative MPs or members of the UK Independence Party among their ranks.

“I am not in a position to give you advice from the outside,” he said. “I can’t ignore the fact that in other EU states developments are worrying. We have got Eurosceptics getting together and parties getting more attention. While Europe is in a crisis that makes our work harder.”


Failing diplomacy
Europe’s history before the first World War highlights the dangers when diplomacy fails, where “nationalism could not be domesticated”, he said. “Despite the wounds that we have inflicted upon each other we have managed to get together.”

Questioned about the free movement of workers, Mr Steinmeier said the German authorities are still considering a European Court of Justice ruling ordering it to pay welfare benefits to a Romanian woman.

Since 2012, nationals from other EU states have had to wait 90 days before claiming German benefits. The 24-year-old Romanian woman at the centre of the case arrived in Germany in 2010, but had no work record.

“We haven’t quite agreed on the consequences of [the judgment]. It might be that we will have to adapt our judicial practice,” he said.

He went on to illustrate the differences between the two countries on the immigration debate. He pointed to the rapid ageing of Germany, which will lose five million workers over the next decade: “Immigration of a larger workforce is not always considered a problem,” he said. “Sometimes it is part of the solution.”