Magazine article The Spectator

What Merkel Wants

Magazine article The Spectator

What Merkel Wants

Article excerpt

The German Chancellor has a lot in common with David Cameron - which is why she can't afford to help him very much

Angela Merkel is misunderstood. Last winter, when Russia moved to annex Crimea after the overthrow of Ukraine's government, American officials put it about that the German Chancellor had described Russia's leader Vladimir Putin as 'living in another world' and 'out of touch with reality'. No evidence has emerged that she ever said any such thing.

Europhiles in the press and in Westminster have now pulled the same trick on David Cameron. The Prime Minister has lately been ruminating about quotas for migrants from certain European Union countries. He complained last month when an unannounced £1.7 billion upward adjustment in Britain's EU payment turned out to be triple the levy on anyone else. (France and Germany are getting rebates of around a billion euros apiece, and George Osborne hopes to negotiate some sort of delay or reduction for Britain.) Cameron has pushed back a long-planned Europe speech till after the 20 November Rochester by-election, a sign he believes he'll lose it to Ukip. The consequence was a rather innocuous story in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel which, without quoting Merkel, said that for the first time she considered a British EU exit 'possible'.

Something got lost in translation. The papers had Merkel 'ready to cast UK adrift' (Belfast Telegraph ) and telling Cameron he had to 'accept EU rules or quit' (Express ). And Nigel Farage tweeted: 'German paper Der Spiegel reports Berlin wants UK EU exit if we try and limit immigration. Still think you can renegotiate, Mr Cameron?' Cameron was suddenly portrayed as being on no more intimate terms with reality than the Bare-Chested Bolshevik himself -- and on the same authority. By now, Frau Merkel must worry that the English-speaking world considers her a terrible gossip.

But the whole story of what Merkel said is implausible. She is surely not angry that Cameron might lead Britain out of the EU; she is more likely frightened that he might follow Britain out of the EU.

For all their differences, Merkel's predicament regarding the EU resembles Cameron's. So does her disposition. Rare enough among contemporary European leaders, she is a patriot. Like Cameron, she thinks of nations as good for things other than tourism, and her favourite country is her own. She badly wants Britain in the EU, as a bulwark against its turning into an inflationary 'transfer union'. She, too, is calling for 'transition controls' regarding migration from new EU member states. She wants more say for national parliaments over EU law. (Even if, confusingly, she insists on more EU say over budget-busting national parliaments.)

And she is astute enough to see that she could soon be facing a Ukip-style crisis of her own. Alternative für Deutschland, the anti-euro party that nearly made it into the Bundestag last year, has won 35 seats in state parliamentary elections since then. AfD is not as radical as it is portrayed in the press. When I interviewed a bunch of its members at a conference in Berlin last year they had a very sophisticated critique of the European Central Bank and the various EU rescue funds, and not much else. But the party has broadened its portfolio to include migration, and the nature of the bank bailouts has drawn it into Ukip territory on the issue of national sovereignty. To read through the surge of comments that follow stories on Cameron in the German press is to be struck by the sympathy for his edgier rhetoric -- particularly regarding immigrant quotas. …

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