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United Kingdom

'Nobody knows where Britain is heading'

As Chancellor Merkel addresses parliament during a historic visit in London, Great Britain's influence in the EU appears to be declining. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Peter Wilding, a pro-EU Briton.

"We want an active, strong Britain in the EU," were the words of Chancellor Merkel's spokesman ahead of her visit to London - where she will be the first German leader in almost 20 years to address both chambers of British parliament.

Peter Wilding is the director of British Influence, a cross-party organization that's campaigning to keep Britain in Europe and pushing for British-led reform of the EU.

DW: Would you say Britain is active and strong in Europe right now?

Peter Wilding: No, I wouldn't, is the straight answer. The UK has three very positive goals in Europe: political reform, economic reform, and the third concerns defense and foreign policy.

The fact of the matter is that Britain could, if it wanted to, really step up and - with allies - reform the institutions of Europe, deepen the single market, and, together with Germany and France, have a robust defense and foreign policy. That requires energy and commitment from London. Paris, Berlin, The Hague, and other capitals are eager to see London lead, but London is not leading.

Why not?

London is not leading because the government is divided between committed pro-Europeans (in the form of the Liberal Democrats) and a divided Conservative Party, half of which wants to engage in Europe and half which does not. This leaves the prime minister in a difficult position.

That being said, your organization has published a study, the British Influence Scorecard, suggesting Britain has been quite successful in Europe...

Our study, which convened a cross-party panel, took evidence and assessed what the government wants and whether it has managed to succeed in achieving it. And the result of the report was that Britain has managed to achieve nearly half of its aims - in the 42 policy areas with a European dimension - over the last year.

Furthermore, Britain is on course with its allies - let's make it absolutely clear that this is a shared process - to continue to succeed in these major areas of policy. Now, it could fail in these areas, but it won't if it conducts a policy in which it gets agreement with allies and pushes through an agreed agenda.

A YouGov survey taken in conjunction with the Scorecard suggests that almost two-thirds of Britons believe the UK has little influence and few - if any - allies in Europe: What is the basis for this pessimism?

Well, looked at from the short-term perspective, the pessimism is generated by relentless negativity in the media and within the political establishment. The long term issue is that a lack of a clear direction in policy from successive UK governments has led to a feeling of directionless policy from London. Nobody seems to know where the country is heading.

The polling you referred to reveals that the people think Britain has no friends. That it is being bullied and ganged up against. That the French and the Germans have hostile interests. All of which is wrong, of course, but then again there has been no leadership in the political establishment to educate the public in a different way.

Speaking of friends, Foreign Secretary William Hague said in the run up to Merkel's visit that Germany is the UK's closest ally in Europe. What is the vision of this special relationship with regard to Europe?

Clearly, there is proximity between Merkel and Cameron particularly over political and economic policy. We know that Merkel is not happy with the Commission, or with the parliament in Brussels, and wants to reform both. From talks with Dutch government representatives, I understand that Britain and Germany have a great number of allies who recognize that Europe needs reform. And if it is not reformed, it could die.

But more importantly, Britain and Germany have to work together to create jobs and growth in Europe. And the cost-free way of doing that is to complete the single market.

So that's what Merkel and Cameron are going to be chatting about over tea later today?

I hope what they'll be chatting about is a long-term project to focus both governments' attention on political and economic reform. Without Germany, Britain is lost. But perhaps without Britain, Germany would not have enough allies to push forward a reform agenda.

Against the backdrop of that dependency, how do you respond to criticism that Britain's influence in the EU is waning?

Is Cameron faced with a conundrum?

Well, to use a soccer metaphor, you have to decide what you want to be: a center forward looking to score a goal, or a left back defender looking to stick in the penalty area. The problem is, strikers exercise influence on a game of soccer because they are imaginative, aggressive players. Being a defender in the box, you're not going to win any friends or influence people, you're just going to stop things from happening.

This is an existential choice for the UK government. Do they want to play an imaginative game of politics? Or is their recourse simply to defend things from happening? British influence will decline if they remain on defense.

What can Coach Cameron do at this point, taking into account the sluggish support in his government for pro-European action?

Frankly, the vision from abroad must be that Cameron is essentially isolated and surrounded by crazy Europhobes who just want to get out. The truth is, however, that it's only about 20 or 30 [ed. note: parliamentarians] on the back benches out of a party of 307 who want to get out.

The rest are open to persuasion, but the problem is that they don't know what their leader wants. In fact, many governments in Europe don't know what Cameron wants. So, naturally, you have a vacuum. And, sooner or later, that vacuum has to be filled.

DW.DE