In her speech at Westminster on Thursday, the German chancellor stressed that she was strongly in favor of Britain remaining part of the EU. This doesn't make Prime Minister David Cameron's position any easier.
The British rolled out the red carpet to welcome the German chancellor with a full charm offensive in London on Thursday (27.02.2014). Angela Merkel had the honor of addressing both Houses of Parliament in Westminster - the first German leader to do so since 1986 - before an appointment for tea with the Queen Elizabeth later in the day. It was an acknowledgement of her status as Europe's most powerful politician.
Nonetheless, in her 30-minute speech in the Royal Gallery, which she delivered partly in English, she was careful to dampen expectations. "I simply want to share my thoughts with you - my thoughts about Europe," she said. These thoughts were, essentially, that she emphatically wanted to see Britain remain part of the EU.
Cameron already in election mode
However, this is unlikely to reassure British Prime Minister David Cameron, who needs Merkel on his side when the two leaders discuss European policy. However, he is also under pressure to fulfill his promise to UK voters to push for EU reform, and he's said he wants to offer Britons a referendum on EU membership by 2017.
With elections due next year, Cameron is tapping into increasing public mistrust of the EU at home. He is also competing with the rising popularity of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP). One EU policy change Cameron is pushing for is restricting the rights of migrants from poorer member states who move to wealthier countries such as Britain, in order to prevent them taking advantage of the welfare system there.
Merkel made it clear in her speech that she was open to the prospect of EU reforms. She stated that both Britain and Germany shared the goal of a "strong and competitive" EU that was a "model for other regions of the world." She said she wanted to see its political structures renewed, and stressed that the EU Commission should only regulate what could not be regulated by the individual states themselves.
However, for many Britons, this is simply not enough. John Redwood, an openly euroskeptic Conservative member of parliament, said ahead of Merkel's visit: "Today UK voters want reform in many areas. They want [welfare] reform, better control of our borders, cheaper energy, better flood protection, less interference with small companies and enterprise. In each of these areas the UK government is blocked or diverted by EU laws."
Redwood is one of a number of Tory MPs who want Britain out of the EU altogether. In an open letter to the German chancellor, timed to coincide with her arrival to the UK, he wrote: "Many in the UK want a new relationship with the EU. We have no wish to stand in your way as you go about your necessary task of leading the eurozone to reform and greater economic policy control from the center. As non-euro members we wish to go in the opposite direction, and need to protect our interests as an independent trading nation."
Merkel has previously indicated that she may be willing to try to help Cameron by pushing for changes to EU freedom of movement in order to limit so-called "benefit tourism" between member states.
"A domestic challenge to the future of David Cameron's government has turned into a question for the whole European Union, and that brings Germany into the game," Almut Möller, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. "For Angela Merkel, the question is how much do you have your agenda hijacked by what's happening in Britain. It is crucial for Germany to continue to heal the eurozone. There is less of an interest in Germany to help David Cameron appease his euroskeptics."
But Möller believes there is still plenty of common ground between the two leaders. "For instance: How do we make sure the single market still works? That is an interest which both Merkel and Cameron have." What Merkel finds difficult is the divisive approach on many issues that Britain has, and the toxic debate it can provoke: "Of course, if the third-largest country leaves the union, that would mean a big overhaul for the whole union, with power being shifted, not necessarily to Germany's advantage," Möller pointed out.
In her speech on Thursday, Merkel emphasized several times that she believed Britain had to remain part of the EU. "We need a strong United Kingdom with a strong voice inside the European Union," she said, making it clear that she regarded Britain as an important ally in improving the EU.
However, despite the chancellor's words the domestic pressures for the British prime minister remain. If Cameron is re-elected in 2015, he may well go ahead with the promised referendum on the future of Britain in the EU. The debate on Britain's role there is likely to continue long after Merkel's red carpet has been rolled up.
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