German foreign minister slaps down Cameron: "there can be no cherry-picking"

Guido Westerwelle criticises Cameron's EU demands and warns that "'You either do what I want or I’ll leave!' is not an attitude that works".

Conservative eurosceptics celebrated last week when Angela Merkel responded to David Cameron's EU speech by declaring that "she was prepared to talk about British wishes" in order to reach "a fair compromise". By this, they took the German Chancellor to mean that her government was willing to support Cameron's attempt to repatriate significant powers over social and employment law, the environment and criminal justice from Brussels. 

But a piece by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, in today's Times (£) makes it clear that this generous interpretation of Merkel's words was entirely wrong. While conceding that reform is needed to make the EU more democratic and more competitive, he unambiguously rejects Cameron's vision of an à la carte Europe in which Britain, alone among the 27 member states, is able to pick and choose which laws it obeys. 

Westerwelle writes:

The current European settlement may not be to everybody’s liking in every respect, but that is the nature of every good compromise. One thing, however, holds true for all of us: there are no rights without duties. There can be no cherry-picking. Saying “You either do what I want or I’ll leave!” is not an attitude that works, either in personal relationships or in a community of nations.

To repeat, "there can be no cherry-picking". It is true, as Cameron points out, that UK enjoys opt-outs from the single currency and the Schengen border-free zone. But since Britain was never a member of either to begin with, this is not a precedent for repatriation. Were the EU to grant the UK special treatment, the single market would soon unravel as other member states made similarly self-interested demands.

What those eurosceptics who demand access to the single market without "all the other stuff" (in the words of Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom) don't understand is that the single market isn't possible without "all the other stuff". Socially-minded member states such as France only accept the free movement of goods, services, capital and people because of the accompanying guarantee of universal employment rights and protections. 

Cameron may plead that no one goes into a renegotiation "hoping and expecting to fail" but it is now clear that only the most heroic U-turn from Germany will save him. 

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.