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.

Getty
Show Hide image

This election is about Brexit - don't kid yourself otherwise

The phrase "taking back control" will come under scrutiny like never before. 

Politicians always say that general elections are important. Usually they say they are “the most important for a generation”. But this time, when they say that they are right.

This election is about power, and about Brexit. It is about the right to negotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and to try to shape our relationship with the rest of the world.

But it is also about the right to try to shape our country’s future at home. Because the way Britain works right now is simply not accepted by millions of people. That is the lesson we all should have learnt from last year's referendum.

The message in the referendum was clear enough: British citizens wanted to "take back control". But the meaning has been lost in interpretation. It has become a caricature of itself.

The Brexit vote has been taken to mean that we are a nation obsessed with repatriating powers from Brussels and keeping immigrants out. And yes, it's true that these are the elements of control which many people most readily turn to when asked. Do a quick, surface-level canvass of voters, and you may well take away that message ­– and that message only.

But keep listening, and you will hear something else. You will hear people yearning to gain some purchase on the places where they live, and the forces which shape their lives. You will hear people desperately seeking some way of taking control over the things that matter to them – their work, their homes and the prospects for the people they love.

Even among those who voted Remain last year, almost half think big business and banks have too much control over them. And at least three-quarters of all voters feel they have little or no control over Westminster, their local council, public services, even their own neighbourhood. When faced with that level of malaise, you have to question whether Brexit will deliver the control which people so clearly want.

The dominant narrative would have us believe people are delighted that our long-held protections – in the workplace, in the market, of the air that we breathe – are all up for barter through Brexit. Anything for the parody of control offered by leaving the European Union. In reality, we cherish these rights. The control we seek does not involve throwing them away.

We want real control. That means building power in our workplaces, where new technology is combining with the old power of capital to leave ever more people at the mercy of forces beyond their control. It means greater influence over where we get to live, in the face of a vicious housing market which continues to deny so many of us a decent, affordable place to live.

 It means taking control in our local communities, which are so often overlooked by top-down efforts at regeneration. It means taking control of our essential services like energy, rather than allowing six giant companies to dictate terms to everyone. And it means taking control of our financial system, so that banks can start to serve the public interest and not just their own.

This election is about Brexit. Anyone who pretends otherwise just isn't paying attention. But ask people what they really mean when they say they want control, and you may be surprised by the answers you hear back.

Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation

0800 7318496