Merkel Signals Lukewarm Support for EU Reforms

Germany has to balance British demands against the wishes of its other ally, France.

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel did not throw her support behind Britain’s push for a “more open, flexible” Europe on Thursday but did leave the door open for some reforms in order to convince the island nation to stay in the bloc.

In a speech to both houses of Britain’s parliament, Merkel, who leads the largest economy in Europe, ruled out the prospect for the sort of far-reaching overhauls of the European Union her conservative counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron, has called for.

“Some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I am afraid they are in for a disappointment,” she said.

But she added, “Others are expecting the exact opposite and they are hoping that I will deliver the clear and simple message here in London that the rest of Europe is not prepared to pay almost any price to keep Britain in the European Union. I am afraid these hopes will be dashed.”

Cameron told lawmakers last year that he wants Britain “to be part of a reformed and successful European Union” after promising a referendum on the country’s future membership if he is reelected in 2015.

While Cameron has not spelled out what reforms he seeks, other prominent members of his Conservative Party have toyed more openly with the possibility of withdrawing from European Union. Education secretary Michael Gove said in May that life outside the bloc would be “perfectly tolerable” for the United Kingdom. “There would be certain advantages,” he suggested. “But my preference is for a change in Britain’s relationship with the European Union.”

Polls show that around 40 percent of Britons favor an exit from the European Union with support for leaving being strongest among older voters. Only those under the age of 24 clearly favor staying in the body, an ICM Research survey revealed in December.

German support for leaving the European Union is even lower although half of those surveyed by YouGov Deutschland last year said they supported efforts, like Cameron’s, to repatriate powers from the European level to national governments.

Cameron and Merkel do share priorities in Europe, including deepening the internal market and reining in excessive government spending and debt, but relations were soured in 2011 when the British leader vetoed a proposal for closer economic and fiscal integration. With German support, the countries that use the euro went ahead with such reforms anyway, effectively creating a “two tier Europe” that has an integrated eurozone core and peripheral states resisting federalization but participating in the single market.

Inside the eurozone, Finland, the Netherlands and some countries in Central Europe also favor a more liberal European Union that focuses primarily on trade. However, Germany has to balance such desires against the wishes of its traditional partner, France, which seeks a more politically cohesive union and whose support it needs to enforce fiscal rules in the previously profligate south of Europe.