Cameron and Merkel at a joint press conference. Source Getty
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Cameron's European predicament is unchanged by Merkel's visit

Germany is Britain's ally in reforming the EU, but that's no use to Tories who say “reform” and mean exit.

Angela Merkel has helped David Cameron about as much as she could, which isn’t much. Downing Street has invested a lot of diplomatic capital in the German Chancellor’s visit and it would have been astonishing had she not repaid that effort with some encouraging noises.

In practice, that meant confirming the existence of common ground between the two leaders on certain areas of potential European reform. Specifically, Germany shares some British concerns about the way freedom of movement within the EU works in combination with migrants’ access to benefits.

But even there, Merkel was clear that the underlying principle of open borders between member states was inviolable.  And her over-arching message was a defence of the European project and Britain’s place within it. That isn’t what Conservative MPs want to hear and the Chancellor knew it: “Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment,” she said.

After all the anticipation and briefing, Downing Street’s predicament is the same after Merkel’s visit as it was before. Germany is Britain’s ally if the agenda is staying in a reformed EU, while much of the Conservative party uses the discussion of reform as a proxy for breaking free altogether. At that point, Berlin loses patience. In any case, neither Merkel, nor any other European head of government is very interested in starting a process of negotiation predicated on doing special favours for the UK  until it is clear that there really is no alternative. In other words, the conversation about a new settlement between Britain and Brussels only starts in earnest if Cameron is returned to No10 in May next year. Before then, it’s all mood music and waffle about directions of travel.

No10 now tacitly recognises that there will be no tangible progress before a general election, not least because the Conservatives are still in coalition with the Lib Dems and they don’t accept the substance of Cameron’s ambition for a drastic membership overhaul as government policy. It is just a Tory aspiration. That means the civil service don’t even want to do the preparatory work on what might be involved.

But there isn’t much chance that Conservative back benchers will just accept that Britain’s relationship with the EU has to trundle along on its current trajectory, unreformed and unchallenged by Downing Street right up until polling day. Merkel can’t get Cameron out of that hole. She’s done what she can to indicate that there is an appetite in Germany for EU reform and has actively encouraged Britain to take the role of a lead reformer. And if that were the sole object of Cameron’s European policy he would now be in a position to declare a degree of success.  But it isn't, so he can't. Merkel can help him in Brussels; she can't help him with the Tory back benches - and that's the audience for which his policy was fashioned in the first place.

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

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.