How Cameron and Miliband greeted Hollande

The PM has lost an ally, while the Labour leader has gained one.

In his congratulatory message to François Hollande, Ed Miliband said the words that David Cameron could not: "I know from our conversations in London earlier this year". When the French President-elect (as we can now call him) campaigned in the capital in February, Cameron, having explicitly endorsed Nicolas Sarkozy, chose not to meet him. Miliband, by contrast, had lunch with Hollande in Westminster.

Some are now suggesting that Cameron's refusal to meet the Socialist will curse their relationship (see Douglas Alexander's tweet, below). Comparisons are being made with Bill Clinton and John Major, whom the US President never forgave for seconding Conservative Central Office staff to George Bush Snr's re-election campaign. As I wrote yesterday, however, such talk shouldn't be overdone. The Hollande camp briefed that it wasn't in their candidate's interests to be seen with a British Conservative and that they "understood" Cameron's support for Sarkozy.

Yet the point remains that Cameron has lost an ally, while Miliband has gained one. In his message to Hollande, Miliband said the new President would help Europe to "escape from austerity" and that he had shown that "the centre-left can offer hope and win elections with a vision of a better, more equal and just world". (One might add that Hollande has also shown that an allegedly uncharismatic social democrat can triumph against a flashier opponent.) The Tories are doing their best to spin the line that Hollande is not "anti-austerity" (he has pledged to eliminate France's deficit by 2017, just a year later than Sarkozy did) but they cannot ignore his support for fiscal stimulus and a more balanced approach to deficit reduction. Like Miliband and Ed Balls, he believes that Europe is going "too far, too fast".

From the sound of it, Cameron's welcome to Hollande was far blander than Miliband's. "The Prime Minister called President-Elect Hollande this evening and congratulated him on his victory," said a Downing Street spokesman. "They both look forward to working very closely together in the future and building on the very close relationship that already exists between the UK and France".

Whether or not the election of Hollande proves a help or a hindrance to Miliband will largely depend on the effect of his policies on the French economy (including a new 75 per cent rate of income tax) and whether he succeeds in re-negotiating the EU's fiscal compact to include pro-growth measures. Hollande's aides have said that he has "45 days" to achieve the latter aim. The quiet hope among the Tories is that France's economy will nosedive, providing them with a model of what would happen to the UK were voters careless enough to hand Miliband the keys to No. 10.

Ed Miliband with French President-elect François Hollande in Westminster earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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