Cameron, Merkel Drawn Into European Proxy Fight

The British and Germans leaders find themselves on opposing sides of a debate about the EU.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron speak ahead of a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 20, 2013
German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron speak ahead of a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 20, 2013 (European Council)

The leaders of Britain and Germany are inadvertently drawn into conflict by the behavior of their allies in the European Parliament.

David Cameron and Angela Merkel publicly differ over who should replace José Manuel Barroso as European Commission president. Merkel’s conservative party formally endorsed Jean-Claude Juncker, the former premier of Luxembourg, who has also claimed the post, given that his European People’s Party won a plurality of the seats in the European Parliament in last month’s election.

The German chancellor faces significant domestic pressure to push through Juncker’s appointment over British objections, even if few Germans had heard of him before the election.

Cameron sees the Luxembourger as an old style European federalist who will be unsympathetic to his proposals for European Union reform.

The British prime minister has promised his voters a referendum on their membership of the European Union after the next general election — by which time he hopes to have secured ample treaty changes to guarantee a majority vote in favor of staying in.

Following last month’s European Parliament elections, which saw major gains for Euroskeptic parties, Cameron argued that the bloc needed to change. “We need an approach that recognizes that Europe should concentrate on what matters, on growth and jobs, and not try to do so much,” he said.

Germany’s hawkish finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, echoed that sentiment in an article for Die Welt newspaper, suggesting that the European Union should concentrate on those areas that “can only be negotiated with long-term success on the European level,” such as the single market, European energy and trade as well as foreign policy. Such an “intelligently integrated Europe,” he admitted, “could, in the end, mean less Europe.”

Merkel has also seemed willing to entertain reform proposals in order to keep the United Kingdom as a member. Germany wants to keep liberal and free trading Britain involved in the European Union as a counterweight to more statist and protectionist member states in the Mediterranean, led by France.

But the new leader of the European People’s Party, the German Manfred Weber, disagrees altogether. He told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper this weekend, “The EU is based on an ever-closer union of European peoples. That is set out in the treaties. It is not negotiable for us.”

Weber specifically ruled out a proposal to give national parliaments the ability to stop European laws. “If we grant every national parliament a veto right, Europe would come to a standstill,” he said. Although this proposal has also been embraced by the Netherlands, a traditional German ally.

Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservatives risk angering Merkel if they admit the anti-euro party Alternative für Deutschland to their group in the European Parliament.

Britain’s Conservatives left the European People’s Party in 2009 in protest to its federalist leanings and now group with rightwingers from the Czech Republic and Poland in the European Conservatives and Reformists — a bloc that was recently strengthened by the admission of the Danish People’s Party and the Finns Party. If Alternative für Deutschland joins as well, the reformists would have more seats than the liberals and become the third largest party in the European Parliament.

The Alternative failed to win any seats in the German parliament in last year’s election but does pose a political and an intellectual challenge to Merkel’s conservatives whose voters are becoming wary of deeper European integration when it often seems to come down to them paying more for highly indebted Mediterranean member states.