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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.