Listening to Merkel’s realism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week addressed a joint gathering of the Commons and Lords, with the rare quality of reception usually reserved for important heads of states, followed by a press conference. Before all this, the Tory press built it up: “Merkel to back PM’s bid for a new EU deal” said the Mail, writes Alan Donnelly.

Alan Donnelly is a former leader of the British Labour party in Europe and current chair of South Shields Constituency Labour Party.

This “overspin” unravelled very quickly. The Chancellor restated a comprehensive case for Europe. She outlined that she was dashing hopes of a special offer of a redesigning the EU for the benefit of British Eurosceptics, but would not be saying the opposite, that European partners do not want the UK at all. Of course, it is true that Cameron has not said what he wants, bar vague UKIP-vote-chasing notions.

The speech was full of realism and honesty. Her praise for the British defence of freedom and willingness to forgive was affecting. And with ongoing violence on the edges of Europe in Ukraine, the image she painted of the historic Europe at war seemed as relevant today as ever. There was a restatement of European values that will horrify some Tory MPs: the four freedoms of the single market are not going to be lost, and a Europe without borders is one of the greatest achievements of the union.

The simple problem is that the backbenchers that forced Cameron into promising a referendum (given certain conditions) in his Bloomberg speech, want so much from “renegotiation” that major treaty change would be needed. Cameron and the Tories have now been told bluntly that renegotiation of the treaties is simply not going to happen. It is not on the table for anyone else in the EU. As shadow Minister for Europe Gareth Thomas wrote last week, Merkel cannot save Cameron from his own backbenchers. When she talks of reframing the politics of the union, the rise of the “anti” vote may be foremost in her mind, but everyone knows the only way to deal with the Euro crisis in the long term is more integration, better management.

There is an opportunity for Labour now. In addition to the speech, Merkel was meeting the party leaders separately. Merkel has much more in common with Ed Miliband and Labour than the Tories. Labour and the two main parties in Germany support continuing practical reform of Europe and they recognise that it is a process best achieved by working together, not through misrepresentations and threats — which by the way are having a diminishing impact on our partners and are only serving to frighten current and future investors in Britain.

Ed Miliband must keep the dialogue going with the Chancellor — regardless of her CDU credentials. She would I am sure, rather work with a moderate, practical and pro-European party leader like Ed than with a leader of a party drifting further and further to the right and further and further from the heart of Europe. Let’s draw out the differences between us. Commit to realistic reform and get away from the referendum discussion which obscures the real issues in Europe: jobs and growth. And as I wrote for Progress in December, Labour should focus on reforms that can be made within the current treaty framework. This can be major point of agreement to build on.

In closing she told MPs and Peers that “united and determined, we can defend our economic and social model”. But the Tory Eurosceptics who have the whip-hand right now are not interested at all in a European economic and social model. The government’s recent policy turns have made Labour the best fit for our European partners, whether they be PES or EPP. It’s time to grasp the mantle of true negotiators for Britain in Europe.