Britain's most important relationship is now with Germany

David Cameron should have paid more attention to European diplomacy and been nicer to Angela Merkel

I mentioned in my column this week that Nick Clegg had been despatched to Brussels to work his polyglot, Euro-expert "Heineken" act - reaching the diplomatic parts other ministers cannot reach. An important part of that process, I gather, is trying to steer the UK's EU partners away from radical treaty change in response to the single currency crisis.

As I've written before, the ultimate demand the markets seem to be making of the eurozone is that Germany stand behind the troubled southern states be deed more than word. That certainly means tougher rules inside the eurozone; it probably also means institutional harmonisation - the "remorseless logic" of deeper fiscal integration that George Osborne has talked about.

But if that turns into a massive EU treaty re-negotiation (or even a less than massive one), Conservative Eurosceptics would demand that David Cameron threaten to wield a veto and demand "repatriation of powers" in return, and possibly a full renegotiation of Britain's EU status. Any new EU treaty would also be subject to powerful demands for a referendum - and not just in the UK. It could trigger a process that might unravel the Union. Not surprisingly, Clegg doesn't like the sound of this. He is a genuine pro-European and he also knows that a treaty renegotiation would put an intolerable strain on coalition relations. There was a passage in his speech on Wednesday that got less attention than it deserved, I thought:

I fully support the goal of better oversight, but I also feel that it is right to caution against returning to the EU's founding texts without first seeing if we can meet these objectives through other means. Our priorities are stability and growth - and they are urgent. To sit around tables for months on end, agonising over this article or that one, becoming engulfed in endless institutional introspection, would be a huge political distraction from the economic task at hand. The danger is that fixating on the treaties will obscure what is really needed. Treaty change should not be a surrogate for political will.

That is the public version. In private I'm fairly sure Clegg will be more explicit with his continental partners about the dangers that a new treaty would pose in terms of stoking up destructive Europhobia back home.

The key relationship here is with Germany. It is the Germans who will want to see the euro made stable with serious rules-based institutional reform as the quid pro quo for putting their domestic finances on the line and for allowing the ECB to betray (as Berlin sees it) the sound money traditions of the old Bundesbank, printing money for a bail out. One official I spoke to says the German cabinet is talking about "pretty ambitious" treaty changes. But a source close to the Deputy Prime Minister says they can be persuaded otherwise.

Either way, Britain's future relationship with the European Union more than ever now relies on the effectiveness of our diplomatic relations with Germany.

A final thought: Knowing all this, I wonder if David Cameron ever regrets pulling the Conservative party out of the European People's Party grouping in the European Parliament. It was a gesture to appease his party's sceptics and a commitment he made in order to be elected Tory leader. He must have thought at the time it was a free hit. (He wasn't then much interested in Europe, thinking the whole issue was toxic and best avoided.)

But Angela Merkel was very angry at the move - her CDU party is in the EPP and she felt snubbed by the Tories' formation of a different group with some decidedly marginal, smaller and more nationalistic European parties. It took quite a lot of effort to persuade the German Chancellor that Cameron was a mature European politician who understood how the EU actually worked. Diplomats and ministers will privately admit that the decision to quit the EPP cost the Tories - and by extension the UK - influence in Europe. There was, for example, a dinner for senior EPP figures on the eve of the last emergency European Council summit. On the guest list: Jose Manuel Barosso, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, Herman van Rompuy ... and no one from Britain.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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