What Angela Merkel should tell London

Dear Brits, Please Be Upfront!

On Thursday 27 February 2014 German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in London, meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth II. She will also address the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Expectations are running high: Germany is supposed to pave the way for a renegotiated British EU membership. How should Merkel respond? Here are some suggestions.

Over the past few months the British government has been tirelessly charming Angela Merkel, sending the signal to both Britain and the rest of the EU that London and Berlin are together on EU reform. The German Chancellor is expected to help Prime Minister David Cameron with his claim of renegotiating the conditions of Britain’s EU membership. It is assumed that Berlin is ready to make concessions to London since Germany has a strong interest in keeping Britain “in.”

True, Germany would rather not lose Britain as a fellow EU member, even though it has often been an inconvenient partner. London brings a worldly attitude to the table, is in favor of the common market and global trade, and is a much needed partner for European security. Thus the possible exit of the third-largest EU member would not only send shockwaves through the rest of the EU; in the medium term, the negotiations to organize the British exit would also absorb significant resources in Berlin, and in the long term would shift power within the Union – perhaps not to Germany’s advantage.

The Federal Government has made it clear that Germany would want Britain rather in than out. However, as is often the case on potentially controversial EU issues, the German Chancellor has so far avoided addressing the messy bits on Britain’s EU future. To what extent is Berlin willing to make concessions to help keep Britain in? In Westminster, Merkel will be tempted to once again deliver one of her speeches that go down well but don’t hurt anyone. Instead, she should clarify things now.

This is what the Chancellor should say:

To start with, please do not overestimate your influence, or that of Germany. If you don’t work to convince all other Europeans that your efforts at reform are to create a better EU, and are not about mere self-interest, then you will soon find your efforts will go nowhere. The EU only works in a cooperative manner; this is what Berlin has learned the hard way over the past few years. We were surprised to see how easily the “German question” returned to the negotiating table. If you only roll out the reddest of carpets for Berlin, this will not lead you anywhere – nor will it for us.

Secondly, don’t place all your eggs in one basket, especially on an issue that is not even on the table. The ways and means of treaty reform have changed. This was a difficult learning process for us too. The centrifugal forces in the EU have become too strong; we just don’t have the time for fundamental reform, and the risk of a painstaking compromise failing in the ratification processes is simply too high. You forced us to think more imaginatively about treaty reform (or, more precisely, eurozone reform) and to engineer it in a more targeted and precise way. This after all has not been such a bad experience. Legal experts are now working at developing much needed reform that holds in both our parliaments and in our constitutional court in Karlsruhe. Dear Brits – very sorry, but you live in the past.

Surely you also understand that even with a dose of goodwill, the Federal Government will not be able to give time and resources to your debate. Berlin places its energy on a sustainable future for the eurozone. One might deem that absurd, but my government, in direct contrast with the British government, has identified “more Europe” as the way to go. For good reasons I have been rather opaque about what this actually means, but this is not a debate to have here in London. There are two games under the EU umbrella now: one is the eurozone, the other one a (non- or not-yet-) eurozone game. Fundamentally we do not like this, not even for a transition period, but my government has started to embrace this reality more openly. Our strategy aims to make the eurozone grow in number, in particular we want to see Poland join. There might be an occasional overlap with British interests here and there, but it would not be enough to create a special relationship between Berlin and London.

So please do not distract us with your balance of competences review. We are a federal state, and Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf, or Stuttgart would also have a lot to say on the issue. Instead, why don’t you come up with an evidence-based strategic assessment on how a deepened eurozone can be reconciled with the needs of the wider single market? What measures are needed, which boundaries must not be crossed to avoid different speeds suddenly turning into different directions? With such a contribution you could demonstrate that you are thinking in both national and European terms, in an inclusive rather than divisive manner. This will be acknowledged elsewhere in Europe too. And why are you obsessing about the balance of competences between the UK and the EU when your own union is under strain? Surely the time has come for Britain to review the distribution of powers within the United Kingdom and move towards a federal system.

And since I have already raised the issue: Our competencies debate is not framed along “renegotiations.” We prefer to speak of subsidiarity, as the Dutch recently reminded us. Subsidiarity, then, is not a one-way street. It can go both ways: more or less Europe.

Don’t be misguided by the critics of my so-called “austerity dictate.” I am not an Iron Lady. In Germany, we adhere to the notion of a social market economy. My new coalition government will make this clear again towards the rest of the EU.

Finally, we have come to cherish flexibility and pragmatism with regard to EU affairs. However, there are limits, especially for a country like Germany. Nobody seriously expects a commitment to deeper integration from London. We understand that you do not intend to join either the Euro or Schengen, and that you have a declining faith in binding rules and institutional arrangements under the roof of the EU. What the British government really wants though is not clear to us. The EU as a network? Since the beginning of European integration we have done well with the choice of taming German power through jointly-agreed rules and jointly-governed institutions. We do not want to see this system watered down.

But especially in areas where we Europeans choose to work together in looser forms of cooperation, we need a sense of mutual trust. What then does Britain contribute? At the moment many of the signals we receive from your country are toxic, sowing the seeds of distrust among Europeans – your debate on the free movement of people in the single market being a prime example.

Dear Brits, please be a bit more upfront and explain what you are really up to rather than trying to use us for your own agenda. We really want you in the Union, but be aware the price might just turn out to be too high.


This piece was originally published with the IP Journal, the English online magazine of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP e.V.).

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