When Angela Merkel arrives in Britain on Thursday for a one-day visit, she will receive the full red-carpet treatment. Not only will she address both houses of parliament at Westminster, a rare honour accorded to few leaders; Ms Merkel will also take tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
The lavish nature of her reception not only reflects her position as the most powerful politician in Europe. It also underscores how central the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, deems her acquiescence to be to his hopes of successfully renegotiating Britain’s relations with the EU.
For the British government – and especially the Conservative party – this renegotiation has become the central foreign policy goal of our time. The finest minds in Whitehall have been set the task of weighing the balance of competences between London and Brussels.
The prime minister’s problem is that few other countries share his priorities. Mr Cameron needs to hammer out a new deal to fit the political timetable he has mapped for himself, which envisages a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2017. But there is little evidence that his EU partners are approaching the question with similar urgency.
In London, Ms Merkel will listen to Mr Cameron sympathetically. She understands his wish to give more power to national parliaments and shares his distaste for benefit tourism. But she must weigh his pleas for action against the wishes of other leading EU governments, which are extremely wary of treaty change. And even if a more informal repatriation of powers can take place, this is unlikely to appeal to Tory backbenchers whose demands are radical to the point of unreality.
Ms Merkel may, however, remind Mr Cameron that there are other, more pressing issues on Europe’s agenda. And this points to what is the most striking feature of her visit: that at a time when Europe is confronting the crisis in Ukraine – one of the biggest challenges since the fall of the Berlin Wall – the British continue to obsess about the minutiae of the EU’s rule book.
For Ms Merkel, a politician whose life has been defined by the cold war, this must be remarkable. After the events of 1989, Margaret Thatcher and John Major championed the enlargement of the EU to the newly liberated nations of central and eastern Europe. Other EU states, notably France, were sceptical. But for those Conservative leaders, enlargement was bound up with questions of democracy and freedom from oppression. Contrast that with today’s Tory party, for which any mention of eastern Europe conjures up images of migrants and benefit-scroungers.
Mr Cameron’s government would do well to reflect on where that attitude is leaving Britain in European affairs. Last Friday the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland brokered a deal in Kiev that stabilised Ukraine’s crisis. Although it was overturned by events, it halted the bloodshed and was an important achievement. Britain – which under a Thatcher, Major or Blair would have been at the table – was absent. Indeed, Britain’s role in Europe is slowly being supplanted by Poland, whose political establishment is determined to make their country a frontline power militarily and diplomatically.
Of course, this is not how things need develop. Ms Merkel wants Britain to stay in the EU, knowing the union’s standing would be diminished by the UK’s departure. But the reality is inescapable. Ms Merkel will get the red carpet from a British government with narrowing diplomatic ambitions and an increasingly introverted approach to Europe. This is a Britain slowly moving to the sidelines of world affairs.
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