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EU politics: going through the motions?

Richard North, 31/10/2012  


Reuters 407-esd.jpg

What is especially interesting about this story - telling us that the arch europhile Wolfgang Schäuble is urging Britain "to remain strongly engaged in the European Union" – is that I can find no trace of it in the German press. It seems that the Deutschemedien is just as parochial in its own way as the British – either that, or it just doesn't care.

However, on the well-tested premise that nothing in EU politics is ever accidental – at least, not things like this – one wonders what precise game the German finance minister was playing at when he visited Saint Anthony's College in Oxford on Monday.

Obviously speaking to reach a wider British audience (but a relatively small one as only a couple of news organs have lifted the story from Reuters), he asserts that "the British voice is sorely needed in this (European) competition of ideas".

He adds: "I firmly believe Europe would be the poorer without this input to our debates. Britain should retain and regain a place at the centre of Europe because this will be good for the European Union". Then he says, "Europe is also good for Britain ... I fear this is not always recognised".

We're getting much the same from Merkel, who is apparently planning to visit Britain, an "important partner", for talks with David Cameron next week. She has echoed Schäuble's comments, speaking to members of the CDU in the northern German town of Schwerin.

"Britain is an important partner in the European Union ... Britain has to some extent other ideas (about Europe), it does not want such close integration. But from the German perspective, from the point of view of our interests it is an important member of the EU", she says. "They (the British) are for free trade, for greater competitiveness, so they are a very good partner".

All this comes in the wake of Hague's visit to Berlin last week – something which was also ignored by the Deutschemedien, adding futher to the mystery. If these exchanges had any importance, and were part of a genuine diplomatic initiative, they should surely be getting more coverage, and certainly some German exposure.

My guess is that both parties (German and British) are going through the motions, so that when the inevitable fracture comes over the new EU treaty, they can both claim they have tried to head trouble off at the pass. The fact that neither side have tried very hard doesn't really matter.

Here, though, the loss-making Guardian may have picked up some useful vibes, as it notes Cameron still trying to milk the EU budget negotiations for domestic political advantage. Cameron, the paper says, "is in danger of making a serious blunder", in getting the balance wrong between "domestic and European priorities".

This is in anticipation of today's Westminster debate on the EU budget, where Tory europlasticism will be rampant and the "colleagues" might be best advised to avert their gaze – especially if Labour and Tory backbenchers combine to beat the government.

Maybe, just maybe, the Schäuble/Merkel initiative is aimed at giving the europhile Mr Cameron ammunition to help him support a case for continued engagement with the EU. After all, the role of the "free-market" UK bolstering the German tendency in that direction, against the dirigiste French, is very much part of the pro-EU rhetoric.

On the other hand, there is a strong vein of Germanophobia in Tory "euroscepticism", which means that a German love-fest could well backfire. The need to be "nasty to the Hun" could be a powerful driver in today's debate.

Nevertheless, for Cameron to have Merkel playing court, on the back of the finance minister of the richest nation in the EU saying kind things, is just the sort of thing that could appeal to the inner europhile, and he can use the attention to make the claim that "Europe needs us".

That could be the excuse he needs to ignore the outcome of the debate: "Cameron the great international statesman" acting for the common good, has just the right sort of ring, and could give him the confidence to hold his ground. And one never knows what sort of reward will be awaiting him when he loses the next election.

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