Open Europe Blog

Chancellor Angela Merkel has delivered her much hyped and anticipated speech to both Houses of Parliament – so what conclusions can we draw and was it good or bad news for David Cameron’s EU strategy?

In short, Merkel delivered a very statesmanlike speech but there was little new here.

The Chancellor was never going to set out a definitive list of reform proposals or endorse/reject Cameron’s EU reform agenda. She made the point explicitly in (perfect) English that her speech would disappoint both those who hoped it would “pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes” and those who expected she would “deliver the clear and simple message that the rest of Europe is not prepared to pay almost any price to keep Britain in the European Union”.

Here are some of our key observations:

  • Merkel opened with a long passage about Britain’s role in both world wars and its commitment to Europe’s democratic values. She emphasised that “the UK has no need to prove its commitment to Europe”. This was a clever gesture of diplomatic goodwill that she didn’t necessarily have to make. She also highlighted Germany’s view that the EU remains a vehicle to ensure stability across the Continent.
  • There were few specifics but she made it clear that in order to strengthen the eurozone the EU treaties will have to be adapted in a “limited, targeted and swift” manner, adding that if the UK and Germany show they are serious about reform, they will find the legal mechanisms to make it happen. 
  • In terns of EU reform generally, she stated that that Europe had to change to adapt to new realities – a clear acknowledgement that the status quo is untenable. She said the EU policies needed to be evaluated by all member states. “For all EU member states it is essential that all EU policies – whether energy and climate, shaping the single market or external trade relations – have to be measured by whether they contribute to the European economic strength or not,” she said.
  • Merkel reiterated her statements on the need to cut red tape and ensure the EU is competitive.
  • She emphasised the benefits of the four freedoms of the single market and that they are inseparable, but added that “it is also true that, to maintain and preserve this freedom of movement and gain acceptance for it from our citizens… we need to muster the courage to point out mistakes and tackle them” – a clear hint at the possibly of reforming the rules around EU migrants’ access to benefits. She further expanded on this in the press conference by pointing out that free movement could not involve unrestricted access to benefits and that this was as much of a concern in Germany as in the UK.
  • Merkel called on the EU to be more outward looking, particularly given that 90% of global growth over next five years will take place outside EU, despite it occupying 25% of the global economy. She was clear on the need for the EU-US free trade deal (TTIP).
  • She also argued that the principle of “subsidiarity must be respected more in Europe”.
  • She stressed the importance of the City of London to the EU economy – a nod to those who fear that the City remains in Brussels’ sights.
  • While Merkel stressed the need for the EU to change economically and politically, the was little more on addressing the EU democratic deficit, which Cameron has been keen to emphasise.

In summary, Merkel’s speech was a statesmanlike address. The rhetoric reflected Germany’s cultural and historical affinity with the EU but, without being specific, Merkel was equally clear about the need for the EU to change. She added, “Our ideas of how the future European Union ought to look like may vary on the details but we, Germany and Britain, share the goal of seeing a strong, competitive European Union join forces.”

Her pitch to Cameron could be summed up with her comments that “we need a strong United Kingdom with a strong voice inside the European Union. If we have that, we will be able to make the necessary changes for the benefit of all.” As we noted in our briefing, there is ample scope to translate these shared principles into concrete reforms which would attract a lot of public support in both countries. It is also worth remembering that when it comes to reforms, Merkel is a believer in a more gradual, step-by-step process as opposed to the huge all-encompassing package that many UK observers are looking out for.

It is now up to David Cameron to put forward concrete policy proposals, not only to the German Chancellor but to the wider EU negotiating table.

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