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Analysis
Britain, Germany and Europe

Britain, Germany and Europe

Merkel’s flexible line is rooted in history

by Thomas Kielinger and David Marsh

Mon 1 Jun 2015

Well-nigh sensational was how commentators described Angela Merkel’s apparent sympathy for some of David Cameron’s central issues behind the British quest for a renegotiated settlement with the European Union.

Whether on action to curb a disruptive tide of migrants from other parts of Europe, or on steps to make Europe less bureaucratic and more competitive, the German chancellor’s message to the UK prime minister on Friday in Berlin was that she understood the British position.

The smart money maintains curtailing free movement of people within the EU is out of the question: ‘Thou shalt not tamper with a hallowed EU principle.’ And yet here was Merkel breezily asserting that changing treaties was ‘not impossible’.

Germany wants to be a ‘constructive partner’ for Britain, she continued, and ‘work very closely together’ on renegotiations. To top it she inserted a proverb which is identical on both sides of the channel: ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way.’

Gone was the hard edge of many German comments about Britain’s presumed EU obstinacy and its perceived inclination to always look for a British ‘Sonderweg’, a separate EU route for the UK. The Berlin meeting was free from such rancour and recrimination. It sounded instead like a love story.

But we are wrong to suppose that Merkel had experienced a sudden change of heart. There is a great deal of rationality and history behind the chancellor’s stance.

For a start, she understands the economics. Britain wouldn’t be attracting migration if its economy wasn’t doing well – and this is an economy that sucks in German imports.

Then there is the geopolitics. For Merkel, Europe risks becoming a lonely place. She has to cope with an upsurge of eurosceptiscm in France, Poland, Spain and Italy. Unrest looms from Russia, Ukraine and Greece. Does Merkel want to risk losing Britain, too, on her watch? That is a consideration working in Cameron’s favour.

But more is involved here than the problems of the present-day. It’s the history, stupid. For, irrespective of the Franco-German ‘axis’, one of Germany’s overriding interests since the second world war has always been to maintain a close rapport with Britain, a country too steeped in diplomatic expertise, commitment to free markets and an open world view to ignore. The German business community – whether bigger or smaller companies – would be greatly upset if Britain left the EU.

The Silent Alliance, it used to be called in the 1980s. While France served as the emotional pillar for Germany’s reconfiguration after the war, Britain was the rational anchor in a confusingly chequered world. Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor, was frequently vexed by Britain’s mixed signals towards the emerging European community. But he knew intuitively how much would be at stake if Germany lost the British as partners.

At the height of the debate, in 1953-54, about the plan for a European Defence Community, Adenauer told a meeting of the upper echelons of the Christian Democrat and Christian Social Union parties, ‘I would very much hope to have Britain on board so that we may not be left alone with the more or less hysterical French.’

Well, the French ditched the EDC anyway. It was Britain which subsequently came up with the rather more valuable idea of Germany joining Nato.

Accommodating London to keep it tethered to the continent is anchored in German thinking. That arch-European Helmut Kohl lent a hand to John Major in 1991-92 over the Maastricht opt-out. But you can go back to the days of Helmut Schmidt and James Callaghan in 1978-79 when Britain was allowed to join the European Monetary System but exempt from the exchange rate mechanism. The crucial point is that any future opt-out should not constrain Britain to do business under the single market regime.

What Merkel might have had in mind when she averred that treaty change was ‘not impossible’ is a matter for conjecture. Her confidant David McAllister, one-time prime minister of Lower Saxony, now a member of the European parliament, lifted the lid on her thinking when he told Sky News that the solution to the British grievances lay in the direction of ‘protocols’ and ‘opt-outs’. Appended to existing treaties this would probably be good enough for Cameron – if not for his more right-wing backbenchers – although it would not conform to a strict definition of treaty change.

Treaty change proper is at present unthinkable in the 28-member EU. But there are other ways to a solutions. Flexibility – thy name is Merkel. In moments that matter between Britain and Germany, this has been the way since 1949. Merkel and Cameron are not setting a new trend, they are following an old route – one that has proved its worth.

Thomas Kielinger, London correspondent since 1998 of German daily Die Welt, is author of biographies of Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill. David Marsh is managing director of OMFIF.

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