German Chancellor Angela Merkel was set to use a high-profile visit to London yesterday, in which she was to address a joint session of the British parliament and have tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, to plead with the British people to remain members of the EU.
Amid genuine fears in Berlin that Britain may be on a trajectory toward exit, Merkel was expected to say that Britain benefits from its membership in the EU. However, she was also expected to say that the EU benefits from Britain’s open approach to trade and markets.
Her visit, which has many of the trappings of a state visit rarely offered to a head of government, contrasts with the low-key reception for French President Francois Hollande at the Anglo-French summit last month at Royal Air Force Brize Norton.
Merkel was to address a joint session of parliament at midday before having lunch with British Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street. They were to hold a joint press conference before Merkel held separate meetings with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and British Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband.
Cameron has invested a great deal of capital in Merkel in the belief that she will be the pivotal figure if he wins next year’s general election and seeks to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership terms. Merkel advised Cameron last year to cast his landmark speech on the EU, in which he pledged to hold an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017, as a campaign to reform the EU as a whole.
She has told the prime minister that — if he acts in that spirit — she would be prepared to offer help if the Lisbon treaty were revised to underpin new governance arrangements.
A senior Berlin official has said that assurances could be introduced during modest treaty revisions to ensure that the interests of Britain and other non-EU members are protected in the European single market.
One British senior coalition figure said any concessions offered by the Germans would amount to “chickenfeed” that would not satisfy Conservative EU skeptics.
Willy Brandt was the last German chancellor to address both houses of the British parliament, delivering a speech in 1970 hailed in a Guardian story as “an unqualified success.”
It is unlikely the British media will be championing Merkel’s visit in similarly euphoric tones by the end of the week. For a start, Britain was then trying to negotiate its way into the European Economic Community. Today, many of those on the benches would prefer Britain negotiate its way out.
Those wanting Britain to stay in, such as the prime minister, will be hoping that Merkel will throw them a lifeline, a trophy those wanting to stay inside Europe can produce as evidence for having successfully renegotiated Britain’s relationship with Brussels.
At the top in Germany, there is a growing concern this week that British expectations have grown far too high for the chancellor to meet. The room Merkel had to voice support was limited, Almut Moller of the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank said.
“Merkel is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand she would like to help Cameron out of the corner, as Germany wants Britain in rather than out. But in effect, her real game is the eurozone and therefore she will not keep Britain in the EU at all costs. And the rest of Europe will listen carefully to what she says in the British parliament,” Moller said.