Angela Merkel hints at EU treaty change but sends warning to Britain
Deal ‘doable’ but not a piece of cake, says German chancellor as Downing Street welcomes signals as ‘helpful but realistic’.
Angela Merkel has taken the first tentative steps towards outlining a modest framework for negotiations to persuade British voters to remain within the EU, in an in-out referendum which David Cameron will call by the end of 2017 if he wins next year’s general election.
The German chancellor, who pleaded with Britain in a speech to a joint session of parliament on Thursday to remain a “strong voice” within the EU, declared in Downing Street that a deal was “doable” though she warned that the negotiations would not be a “piece of cake”.
Merkel said that Britain would have to win the support of the 27 other leaders of the EU, and added: “I firmly believe that what we are discussing here is feasible, is doable … it is not a piece of cake. It is going to be a lot of work. But we have already worked quite hard on other issues. If one wants Britain to remain in the EU, which is what I want, if one at the same time wants a competitive union that generates growth, one can find common solutions.”
But she moved to inject a dose of reality by saying that her main priority was to strengthen the euro – by ensuring monetary union was matched by an economic union among eurozone members – with “clear-cut and resilient architecture”. The chancellor indicated that this would involve treaty change. But in a warning to Cameron, who would like to use such negotiations to table his demands, she said this would be limited and would leave little room for special treatment for one member state. Merkel said: “I believe we need to adapt the legal foundations of the monetary union in a limited, targeted and speedy way to stabilise the union for the long term.”
MPs and peers laughed as Merkel, who recalled her first visit to London in the spring of 1990 shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, said those expecting a “fundamental reform of the European architecture” in Britain’s direction would be disappointed. Opening her speech at the Palace of Westminster in English, Merkel said: “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 am afraid they are in for a disappointment.
“I have also heard that others are expecting the exact opposite and 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 EU. I am afraid these hopes will be dashed too.
“If what I have been told is true then it will be obvious to everyone that I find myself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. That is not a pleasant position to be in, at least for a German head of government. Nevertheless, that cannot in any way spoil my pleasure in being here today.”
Downing Street was delighted with the signals from Merkel, which it regarded as helpful but realistic. The prime minister said: “Angela and I both want to see change in Europe. We both believe change is possible. I believe that what I am setting out, the sort of changes Britain wants to see to build confidence in our membership of this organisation, are possible and deliverable and doable.”
But Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, who met Merkel with Ed Miliband, said: “Chancellor Merkel’s remarks have confirmed that David Cameron’s approach to Europe just isn’t working. He’s lost control of his party and, as a result, he’s losing influence with other European leaders. The gap between what Chancellor Merkel was offering, and what his[Cameron’s] eurosceptic backbenchers are demanding remains as wide as ever.”
The visit by Merkel was the most significant intervention by a German chancellor in London since Helmut Schmidt pleaded with the Labour party to embrace the European project in a speech at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, before the 1975 EEC referendum. Merkel kicked off her day with a speech to a joint session of parliament in the royal gallery, which is decorated with the Daniel Maclise portrait of the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian field marshal Blücher before the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
Merkel, whose warm welcome contrasted with the low-key reception for the French president, François Hollande, at last month’s Anglo-French summit at RAF Brize Norton, headed after her speech to Downing Street for a brief meeting with Nick Clegg. The multilingual deputy prime minister spoke in German.
The prime minister then hosted a lunch for Merkel. The two leaders were served beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with citrus dressing followed by a main course of Newlyn stone bass with potato, broccoli and green beans.
Merkel made clear at a joint press conference with Cameron that she was prepared to help Britain – while stressing that her patience was finite – as she outlined a framework for the negotiations. These will cover:
• A renewed focus on the claiming of benefits by migrants within the EU. Merkel made clear she would resist any attempt to restrict freedom of movement within the EU. But she added: “If we were to see that freedom of movement has, as a consequence, that everyone who is seeking a job in Europe has the possibility to come to Germany and will receive an equal amount of social benefits as someone who for a long time has been unemployed in Germany after 30, 40 years work – that would not be the interpretation of freedom of movement I would have. Is immigration into social security possible? No country in Europe would be able to withstand such an onslaught because we have very different social security systems. We can only have virtually the same level of social security if we try to generate growth and jobs – not by having immigration into social systems. That is just as much a headache for us in Germany as it is for the British people.”
• Assurances, as a City of London Corporation and Policy Network think tank paper revealed, that EU members outside the eurozone would not be outmanoeuvred in the single market. “We are members of the euro area, Britain isn’t and doesn’t want to become a member of the euro area. If that is acceptable one can find solutions for the different requests … we have to look very carefully at those countries that don’t have a say [in the eurozone] because they are not members [of the eurozone]. You must not have them at a systematic disadvantage.”
Merkel made it clear she shared Cameron’s objectives to ensure that EU regulation was simplified and that the principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level – should be re-emphasised.
Speaking in German, she said: “We need to cut unnecessary red tape at the European level that hampers our companies in Germany just as in the UK. We always have to measure up with the best of them in the world. Therefore European rules and regulations need to be subject to regular reviews just as national rules and regulations [do]. Should they prove to be superfluous they have to be scrapped…The principle of subsidiarity needs to be respected more in Europe.”
The chancellor reinforced this message with a call for Britain and Germany to remain “united and determined” in reforming the EU and promoting competitiveness. “We, Germany and Britain, share the goal of seeing a strong competitive EU join forces,” she said in her final words in German.
Turning to English, she added: “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. I regard it as the task for our generation.”