When Angela Merkel arrives for talks in London tomorrow she will no doubt be publicly supportive of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. She has previously made clear Britain is a valued member of the EU and that Germany wants Britain to stay in. On this visit, just months away from a general election, the chancellor is too wise to be drawn into the United Kingom election campaign and she will want to avoid saying anything which gives a weapon to either main political party.
But in private her message to David Cameron may be a little different. She will of course urge him to keep Britain inside Europe, but she is also likely to reflect German concerns that there is a danger of him and his party expecting too much of Germany, and she will make clear that Britain has responsibilities of its own.
Merkel’s warning last year that the principle of free movement was for her non-negotiable was a clear and deliberate signal to Cameron. But beyond issues of principle there are also practicalities. Put bluntly, Germany does not believe that it should simply be expected to bail out the periphery of Europe financially and Cameron politically.
Just days before her visit, Cameron seemed to suggest that, regardless of the views of other member states, he wanted ‘full-on’ treaty change and wanted it possibly before 2017. So it should come as no surprise to him if Merkel uses her time in London to make clear there is a limit to how far Germany will go to help keep the UK in Europe while Cameron continues to play internal politics over our membership of the EU.
She will have in mind the stark contrast between her response to the anti-immigration Pegida demonstrations in Dresden and our own prime minister’s response to the United Kingdom Independence party.
Cameron’s approach to Europe has been driven by the weakness of his own leadership internally and the electoral threat of Ukip externally. Early in this parliament he rejected a referendum on Britain’s membership of Europe, and he whipped his members of parliament to vote against it. But then he made an in/out referendum in 2017 the centrepiece of his European policy in a vain attempt to buy off his Eurosceptic backbenchers and potential Ukip defectors.
Having failed to learn the lesson of that failure to appease Eurosceptic sentiment, he said he would breach the principle of free movement in his conference speech last year. And since then he has been forced to conduct a further U-turn when that proposal was rejected by Merkel and just about every other EU leader.
Now Cameron hints that he may not campaign to keep Britain in Europe after all, and may bring forward the date of his 2017 referendum. All the way through this parliament, the message understood by his Eurosceptic backbenchers is: ‘This man is weak. He can be pushed. Keep up the pressure.’
At no point has Cameron made a stand against those in his own party and said the way this debate is going is not in the UK’s interests, that it has unleashed an ugly politics about whether Romanians are living next door or immigrants are causing traffic jams, and that it is time we stood up against it. That is not a speech he has been willing to make.
Contrast this with Merkel’s new year message. Of the Pegida demonstrators she said, ‘I say to all those who go to such demonstrations: do not follow those who have called the rallies because all too often they have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.’ Of their slogan ‘Wir sind das volk/we are the people’ she said, ‘What they really mean is: You are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion’.
Germany’s leader is prepared to speak out against the dangers of the anti-immigrant sentiment in her country. Cameron caves in to it. Of course there is history here and there are very good reasons why no senior German politician wants to fire the flames of anti-immigrant feeling. But the contrast in responses is also the difference between smallness in politics and a bigger, wider view. It is ultimately about the exercise of leadership and explaining how the world has changed and what our responsibilities are or the abdication of leadership.
Merkel is also likely to remind Cameron that his own demands about Britain are not the only concern Europe has right now. With a Greek election posing new questions for the eurozone and the issue of quantitative easing on the European Central Bank agenda it is clear that the EU’s economic problems are far from over.
Finally, and very importantly, she will want to discuss the dangers posed by Vladimir Putin. Her background gives her an understanding of the dangers of Russian nationalism and of resolving the Ukraine crisis without it spreading to other countries.
Britain is used to being a leading player on these questions of security, diplomacy and economic prosperity. But under this government our role has become diminished. Cameron has spent more time looking inward than out. It does not have to be like this. Britain can and must play a leading role again.
Pat McFadden MP is shadow minister for Europe. He tweets @PatMcFaddenMP