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.
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.