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.