Region: Cameron's speech realigns forces of the European Union
Uncertainty over UK's future strengthens relations between Germany and France
Posted: January 30, 2013
Cameron, right, chats with European Parliament President Martin Schulz at a European Council meeting Oct. 18 where European leaders discussed the legal framework for a eurozone banking regulator.
They hail from the same political family and share many priorities for economic reform in Europe, but UK Prime Minister David Cameron all but forces his German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel, to deepen relations with France as the United Kingdom considers whether to stay in the European Union or opt out.
The British leader promised voters a referendum on EU membership after the 2015 election in a speech Jan. 23. He admitted Euroskepticism in his nation was at an "all-time high." Within his ruling Conservative Party, which supports membership on renegotiated terms, there are voices calling for an exit. On the right, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which favors a withdrawal from the body altogether, now polls higher than Cameron's Liberal Democrat coalition partners, the most pro-European among the major political parties in the United Kingdom.
The anti-Europeans are particularly appalled by what they see as a move toward a political union that threatens to take away even more rights and privileges from Westminster. Cameron said he shares those concerns but emphasized the need for the UK to maintain close commercial relations with the Continent. "We are a trading nation, and we need the single market for trade, investment and jobs," he told Parliament more than a year ago.
Nigel Farage, UKIP's leader, disagreed. "We want to go on doing business with the EU, and we will go on doing business with the EU," he said on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show Jan. 20. "There is no prospect of Mercedes and Volkswagen not wishing to sell their cars to this country because we're not part of a political union."
That may be true, but the prospect of a UK exit from the EU - or a UK disengagement during a time of economic and fiscal integration - necessitates a re-alignment in German foreign policy all the same.
Germany once welcomed UK membership as a natural balancer against France and Mediterranean countries in the European Union that are less fiscally prudent and economically productive than itself. "In the past," wrote Mats Persson, director of the Euroskeptic Open Europe think-tank in The Telegraph Nov. 6 last year, "Berlin needed London to balance the Mediterranean bloc. Now, Germany's checkbook does all the talking." Chancellor Merkel's frustration with the United Kingdom's inability to decide whether it wants in or out may compel her to strengthen Berlin's partnership with Paris.
Many French policymakers, who worried their relationship with Germany would suffer with the departure of Merkel's conservative ally Nicolas Sarkozy following his election defeat last year, are exhilarated by Cameron's promise of a referendum. "If Britain wants to leave Europe, we will roll out the red carpet for it," said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The Socialist government in Paris, led by President François Hollande, recognizes that without UK support, the Germans will be in a less favorable position to enforce their policies of economic recovery and fiscal consolidation on the rest of the single currency area. In the past, Hollande explicitly campaigned against German-style austerity. But with his country facing mounting economic pressure to institute painful reforms, he is sounding more conciliatory.
"We are aware we have a competitiveness problem in France. We lost time in France while Germany pushed reforms, and we need to catch up," said the French president in Berlin Jan. 22 during a celebration that marked the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty that sealed the reconciliation between the former rivals. However, he stressed that France "cannot simply copy the German model," adding, "lowering wages or social spending is not the way."
Sarkozy campaigned on imitating German economic choices. Hollande and a majority of the French electorate have little desire to follow. Cameron, with his insistence on strengthening the single market, including deregulation, and boosting trade relations with non-European powers, is far more closely aligned with Merkel's views on what needs to be done. But with UK membership in doubt for several years to come, the Germans can't afford to risk alienating the French in an attempt to "Germanize" the rest of Europe. They may find themselves in the minority if Britain does leave and suffer a backlash against their program.
The irony of Cameron's promise of a referendum is that it achieves the very thing so many Britons fear: deeper economic and fiscal integration in the rest of Europe and perhaps a political union. The Germans may not be particularly anxious to push ahead with such a scheme while there is a left-wing government in Paris, but their conservative allies in London leave them very little choice. As a consequence, a majority decision to leave the EU is all the more likely if the United Kingdom indeed calls a referendum several years from now.
Nick Ottens can be reached at
- Well ok but a more sensible way of looking at it is that the UK referendum (asking ...
- I have the exact opposite reading on how Germany's Angela Merkel reacted to ...