Why Merkel is the key to Cameron's pledge to Britain

British Prime Minister Cameron promised that if his party wins 2015 elections, he'll seek to renegotiate terms of British membership in the EU.

Andrew Winning/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron watches as German Chancellor Angela Merkel smiles during a news conference at Number 10 Downing Street in London, February 27.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s address to both houses of parliament in Britain today is an honor that not all foreign dignitaries receive. She joins the ranks of Nelson Mandela, Charles de Gaulle, Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama.

The red carpet welcome, which includes tea with the Queen, underscores how vital Berlin is to British Prime Minister David Cameron. Their views on Europe diverge widely in some areas, but Ms. Merkel is the de-facto head of a more integrated European Union. It is through her that Mr. Cameron might be best positioned to renegotiate Britain’s position in the bloc, and make membership more appealing to an increasingly skeptical British public. 

Germany has become a rather dominant player in European politics; it can be regarded as something of a swing state that might also swing to the British side when it comes to increasing competitiveness of the EU, cutting red tape, and opening markets for free trade,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, an economist and director of the Berlin-based think-tank Open Europe.

Cameron, under pressure from anti-EU forces in his own party and the populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), promised last year that if his conservatives win 2015 elections, he will seek to renegotiate certain terms of British membership in the EU and put membership to a referendum in 2017.

He seeks to renegotiate Britain’s position in the EU through treaty revision, even though member states would be wary of opening up treaties to reform. “Their broad philosophy might be shared, but the approach to it, which is treaty change, is not something Germans want,” says Iain Begg, professor at the European Institute at the London School of Economics.

However, Cameron might be able to extract concessions from Germany that allow him to face his electorate and claim that Britain's position is stronger. A robust relationship with Germany also boosts Cameron because the eurocrisis has deepened the relationship among member states, particularly those that use the euro (Britain does not). He does not want to be on the sidelines of critical eurozone decision-making, especially if the new rules apply to Britain.

At her speech today, Merkel recognized this tension when she said she was "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea" when it comes to Britain’s competing voices on their relationship with Europe.

She said the EU would be stronger with London’s presence, and urged Britain to remain a part of the bloc.

"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 of our generation," Merkel said.

"In order to attain this goal, we need a strong United Kingdom with a strong voice inside the European Union."

‘Help each other’

For decades the EU project was dominated by successive Franco-German leaders at the heart of European integration. That relationship is still crucial, and there are signs that tensions between Merkel and French President François Hollande might be thawing, illustrated last week when Merkel and her new cabinet visited their French counterparts in Paris.

“German Social Democrats, since the end of last year in a coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats, want to breathe new life in the German-French relationship,” says Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “A deep understanding between Germany and France has always been the driver of European integration, which the Social Democrats would like to deepen.”

Still, the relationship between Britain and Germany has grown more important throughout the crisis, underscored by a rare family visit that Cameron made last year to Merkel’s guesthouse outside Berlin.

As France’s economy has stagnated, Germany has dominated Europe – a position that the historically reticent nation does not savor. It prefers to share powers and strengths among the big European economies. A strong relationship with Britain gives it more alternatives and a partner that shares its economic philosophies.

“The French have a rather different philosophy when it comes to economic policy. They are more interventionist and protectionist, while the UK stands much more for open, free markets and competition," says Mr. Wohlgemuth. "In that sense the economic political philosophies are much closer.” 

But what each leader can attain from the other might be limited. Germany wants to keep Britain in the bloc but not at the cost of treaty change, for example. Meanwhile, Britain has increasingly discussed restricting freedom of movement of individuals, which critics say would violates the spirit of integration that defines the EU.

“They want to help each other,” says Mr. Begg, “but they have their own red lines for different reasons that get in the way of mutual assistance.”

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