Is Mrs Merkel Really The British Eurosceptics’ Best Friend?

Denis McShane

Denis McShane

Waiting for Angela is Europe’s new summer sport. A joke doing the round is the little boy who keeps telling his daddy he has to go the toilet. “Hush, child, not until after the German elections,” is the reply.  These are due to be held on 22 September on all current polls will return Mrs Merkel to a third term as Chancellor.

Mrs Merkel also appears to have become the pin-up for those who imagine that all of Europe is ready to fall in behind the desire of British Eurosceptics to see a massive reorganization of the EU along the lines promoted by Eurohostile politicians and think-tanks in London.

It is not clear what is the real source of this belief in Angela as the Joan of Arc of British Euroscepticism. To be sure, she wants the UK to stay in Europe. But that is true of Francois  Hollande and was also the impassioned plea of Italy’s new centre-left leader, Enrico Letta, during a recent London visit. In fact every EU member state looks with horror at the idea of Brexit.

Many would be happy to find some accommodation but none so far are ready to meet the minimal conditions laid down by even moderate Eurosceptics, let alone the more hard line demands of complete opt-outs on any EU policy disliked by the anti-EU commentariat.

Mrs Merkel is the arch negotiator and compromiser. She avoids sharpe-edged decisions and has had constantly to manoeuver in two different coalition governments, deal with stand offs between the two chambers of the German Parliament, appease the social catholic traditions of her party, incorporate the growing green politics and listen to the clamour of industry and business for more rightist politics.

So if she can help a British PM she will. But she also has a political memory. She begged British Conservatives not to quit the European People’s Party and was bitter when her entreaties were ignored. English is her only other foreign language other than Russian. She would have liked to work politically with a centre-right British PM but she was spurned for odd-ball erratic rightists in the European Parliament.

Now there is great excitement that in the traditional summer interview every German Chancellor gives she said that she could envisage her plea for “more Europe as meaning stronger, more intensive coordination with others using national powers – that is another form of more Europe.”

With maximum über-spin by Eurosceptic briefers this became in the Independent‘s headline “Angela Merkel supports Tory plan to ‘give back’ EU powers to member states”. That may be the wish of some – probably Spain’s Mariano Rajoy – as he tries to impede free movement between Gibraltar and the rest of Spain – but it is not what Mrs Merkel said.

She made no reference to repatriation of powers and said nothing about Britain at all. The Kanzleramt spokesperson did brief the Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung that there was “astonishment” in governing circles in Berlin that politicians in London had so crudely misinterpreted Mrs Merkel’s routine summer interview.

A better signal of her future intentions came when she said she would prefer to remain in coalition with ultra pro-EU Free Democrats after the September election but she could live with another coalition with the Social Democrats. The FDP foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, was loud in his public criticism of the prime minister’s January referendum speech and the social democrats have little time for British Euroscepticism especially its hostility to Social Europe.

So the idea that a new German government under Mrs Merkel is ready to do anything to help a British renegotiation and repatriation politics needs very careful consideration. Germany has plenty of criticisms of the EU and a new party, “Alternative for Germany”, which wants a return to the Deutschmark. But the long list of demands for a totally reconfigured EU advanced by those in London who take their wishes for reality just don’t correspond to anything said in Germany at a high government, political or business level.

There is another factor to be taken into account by those waiting for Angela to be the champion of British Eurosceptics. This is the strong view inside German politics that she may not be around in 2017 for the British referendum. Many believe she will leave in 2015 after a decade of power. She saw close up the disaster of Helmut Kohl’s last years as he stayed on and on in office as the public and his party wanted him to go. She also knows the story of Margaret Thatcher who went past a decade in high office and was booted out in humiliating circumstances.

Does Mrs Merkel want to repeat the error of Kohl and Thatcher and stay on in power or go out on a high having won three elections for her party and been a good Chancellor for Germany? Perhaps she does not know herself and will decide closer to the tenth anniversary of arriving in power. But anyone who takes German politics seriously should be advising British Eurosceptics not to place all their Eier in Angela’s basket and to hire someone who can read German before briefing the press on what Mrs Merkel did not say.