By Peter Wilding
Last night’s meeting between two leaders who fundamentally get on with each other demonstrated that the cigarette paper which separates them (budget freeze or cut) remains a diplomatic gulf. Trapped by his backbenchers and his own pledges, Dave is unable to deal with matters European without a megaphone to hand. So when the German Chancellor spends yesterday strongly backing British power in Europe, from London there is silence. Remarkably, Nigel Farage’s desperate European Parliament plea yesterday urging Angela to put the UK out of its EU misery was the unique response to the Chancellor from the UK’s parochial political class.
The German Chancellor told the European Parliament she could not imagine a Europe without Britain, the world’s sixth largest economy, which relies on the EU for half its trade:
“I want to have a strong UK in the EU. The UK was with us when we were liberated from national socialism. We still have British soldiers in Germany. I can’t imagine that the UK [would] not be part of Europe. I think it is good also for the UK to be part of Europe. If you have a world of seven billion, and if you are alone in that world, I don’t think that is good for the UK. So I will do everything to keep the UK in the EU as a good partner, and that is why I’m going to London and I will ask the inhabitants of the wonderful island to reflect that they will not be happy if they are alone in this world. With a strong Europe with 500 million we are in favour of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and democracy. Look around the world at where this isn’t the case and be happy that we are together”.
Why is Britain critical to Germany? The Germans want the northern states at the table to fight for the single market and deregulation as a useful counterweight to France, Spain and Italy, which tend towards a more protectionist approach. So they need the UK as a large, liberal-minded ally to pull its weight to lead what I will be derided for calling the ‘Thatcherite/Blairite’ bloc. Merkel also knows that the British-German relationship is key for the future shape of a multispeed Europe. Berlin has tried to ensure decisions taken by EU members to help stabilise the eurozone should not exclude the involvement of Britain and other euro “outs” such as Sweden and Denmark.
So to quote the old Gilbert O’Sullivan song – is Britain alone again, naturally? Merkel’s cri de coeur willing the UK to stay in, suggests, yet again, that the UK is in a minority of one, utterly beleaguered and misunderstood. The press likes to portray prudent Britain as engaged in a solitary battle against wasteful Brussels bureaucrats, spoilt French farmers and needy Eastern Europeans. But, we should repeat again and again that Britain is not alone: Germany herself, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Sweden, even Italy have all been calling for a freeze in EU spending. The difference is that these countries understand the need to talk the language of compromise in public as the net recipients of EU money would prefer a bigger budget, whilst playing hardball in private.
It’s just that in the UK the only words that count are a famous echo from 1990: “No, no, no.”