On 27 February 2014, Angela Merkel addressed both Houses of the British Parliament before taking tea with the Queen. The visit dominated headlines in the UK, most notably The Daily Mail which ran the headline “Merkel to back PM’s bid for a new EU deal.” In the aftermath of the visit, The Telegraph declared “Angela Merkel’s visit is a small step in the long march to reform.” Given that both publications are in a demographic sympathetic to the Eurosceptic cause, the cooling effect Merkel’s address had on British Euroscepticism (at least in the press) is telling.
British Prime Minister David Cameron wants the UK to remain in the EU, and was forced into this position by the hardline-Eurosceptic core of the Conservative Party. Empowered by the crisis in the Eurozone and a belief that treaty revision would be required to stabilise the common currency, Tory rebels forced Cameron to declare that he would hold an in-out referendum in 2017 (an arbitrary date, designed to offer the Tories an electoral advantage in the 2015 general election). However, following his Bloomberg speech, Cameron found that several European capitals were sympathetic to his calls for European reform, including Merkel (despite a frosty period following Cameron’s decision to pull Tory MEPs out of the mainstream centre-right party in the European Parliament [the European Peoples Party] and form a fringe group).
At this point, Cameron might well have been able to seize the day and become the driving force of reform in Europe. Sadly for the Prime Minister, this was not to be. The rise of the hard-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) has put fright into Tory Eurosceptics and therefore placed the embattled Prime Minister under pressure to demand even more audacious prizes from Brussels – the golden fleece being an end to the free movement of people throughout the EU – something other European leaders and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats (with whom he governs) cannot tolerate.
In light of these events, it is then understandable why Merkel, Europe’s most powerful head of government, received a regal welcome in London. A “Yes” from Merkel to European reform would lend Cameron a powerful ally and give credit to his claim that he is able to reform Europe. Indeed, that is (to a very limited extent) what he got. Merkel is not opposed to reform, neither are her Social Democrat coalition partners. But Merkel made it clear that neither she, nor Germany or Europe, will re-write the EU Treaties – a process known to take up to ten years – to suit the timetable of a group of British Eurosceptic MPs. Merkel’s response was to laud the UK’s history as a bastion of parliamentary democracy in Europe and note that reform was a necessary component of the European project – “wir brauchen den Mut zur Veränderung, um die Erfolgsgeschichte der europäischen Einigung fortzusetzen” (we need the courage to change in order to continue the success that is European unity).
The opposition Labour Party, which successfully navigated the Lisbon Treaty through the British Parliament, remains a more natural partner for Merkel than many of the Tories. Despite being on differing sides of the political spectrum, Labour’s policy of reforming Europe from within echoes that of Merkel. This is of course also Cameron’s stance but Cameron is unable to pursue it. As Labour’s shadow Minister for Europe, Gareth Thomas noted “this visit exposes … that the gap between what Tory backbenchers are demanding, and what David Cameron can deliver in Europe is still unbridgeable.”
Reform of Europe is achievable, indeed in my view inevitable, but requires political parties to act together. Pro-membership figures like David Cameron remind us that the Conservative Party can engage with Europe. In addition to Labour, the governing Liberal Democrats and opposition Greens and the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales are all friends of Europe. But as French President Francois Hollande also made clear on a visit to the UK recently, hardline-Tory MPs and UKIP will not be able to set the agenda for the 27 other Member States of the EU. Merkel’s visit has reminded us that Eurorealism is how to engage with Brussels.