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

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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