Befriending Britain Merkel's Bulldog Spirit

Despite other distractions, the real purpose of Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to London this week was a practical desire to persuade Britain to stay in the European Union.
Don't go Dave.

The British press received German Chancellor Angela Merkel like the reigning monarch of Europe when she arrived for a visit in London this week.

They and their readers see Ms. Merkel as a well-meaning aunt, who must occasionally reprimand her wayward nephew, Prime Minister David Cameron.

At times, it seemed as if she came only to pay her respects to the director of the British Museum, who she wants to woo away to head up the artsy Berlin Humboldt Center, while the visit to Mr. Cameron’s kitchen was only a courtesy call she needed to make.

In Britain, they compare the mistakes of the impetuous prime minister with Ms. Merkel's sovereign political management. Twice in the past few months, the chancellor has had to prod Mr. Cameron back into line.

The first time concerned British opposition to the appointmet of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the E.U.'s powerful executive branch. The second came when Mr. Cameron sought a cap on freedom of movement within the European Union in response to Britain’s concerns about immigration.

Twice in the past few months, the chancellor has had to prod Mr. Cameron back into line.

The British compare Ms. Merkel’s clear rejection of the rising German anti-Islamic movement Pegida - Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West - with Mr. Cameron’s wary stance on the British anti-immigration party UKIP. And they see the German chancellor as someone who, if she doesn’t have the future of Britain in her hands, can at least give a thumbs-down to the Conservative prime minister.

For example, she has already demonstrated to British voters that Mr. Cameron is banging his head against a brick wall over the chance of any E.U. reforms ahead of a promised referendum on Britain’s membership of the bloc.

Yet her visit also can be viewed in a very different way. The fact she has traveled to London with so much public fanfare twice in a year shows how important and heartfelt relations are between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Cameron.

British interest in Germany is greater than ever, while Germans are becoming more conscious of London’s importance. There is no evidence to suggest that Berlin would calmly let the British isles drift off into the Atlantic.

Britain is Germany’s most significant export market, recently overtook France as the second strongest economic power in Europe and plays the role of a stable and reliable partner in Germany’s strategic objectives.

All these issues were on the agenda for discussion: Russia, where Mr. Cameron is Ms. Merkel’s most important European partner in pressurizing President Vladimir Putin with sanctions and diplomatic offerings, and the European economy, which must be reformed to prevent the decline of Europe and the euro.

Rather than gloating, the British are alarmed about the state of the euro-zone economy. They view with mounting horror the tightrope walk between the monetary union they spurned and the mountains of debt growing under the depression and deflation.

Talks will get serious only after the British parliamentary elections in May.

Britain’s future in Europe is Ms. Merkel’s third major task. Germany and Europe cannot afford to lose this partner given the precarious state of the world. Even if many do not see it, the British are a pillar of Europe’s strength. They stand solidly for globalization and internationalism, have contempt for protectionism, enjoy military strength and have a love of innovation.

What’s more, if the British leave the European Union, it would likely start a chain reaction that would hit Germany especially hard. Even in the matter of Pegida and anti-immigrant sentiments, Germany and Britain have more in common than rhetoric would suggest.

The political situation in Britain is an example of how, in defiance of appeals to morality, a rightwing, self-confident party such as Ukip can influence the political system, a process that has just begun in Germany.

Ms. Merkel knows all of this. Quite possibly, she understands better than most the historical and parliamentary roots of British euroscepticism. So, while she arrived to press her case for the British to remain in the Union, she couldn’t officially admit to that task.

She must dampen down exaggerated hopes of success on that score while stressing the limits of German influence. The chancellor has also begun to direct Mr. Cameron’s reform aspirations along paths that serve Germany’s purposes, such as negotiations on E.U. immigration reform.

British motives for changes to E.U. treaties are different to those envisioned in Berlin's Ministry of Finance, which seeks to politically ensure prudence and reason in the E.U. budget. But the two sides can be constructively linked when the negotiations begin in earnest.

Developments are not at that point yet. Talks will get serious only after the British parliamentary elections in May, assuming Mr. Cameron remains in post. Until then, Germany can confidently say that it is not solely responsible for Britain remaining in the Union, just as it cannot rescue the euro zone from its mountain of debt on its own.

The day when Germany shows its true colors concerning the British will come some day soon. The “playing for time” strategy that has served Ms. Merkel so well in the euro crisis will then no longer be enough.

 

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