The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, made her first visit of 2015 to Britain today as the UK election campaign – some may say, for now at least, a phoney campaign – swings into action. As so many times in the past Europe, and Britain’s ongoing membership of the EU, is in full focus. Initially Downing Street and the German Chancellory had emphasised that the main reason for today’s visit was for the German Chancellor to discuss G7 matters with Prime Minister David Cameron. But whatever the pretext, it soon became clear that the two leaders would discuss the European Union and calls by Britain and others for its reform.
Britain is going through a period of extremely close examination of what membership of the EU means to the UK – particularly how migrants from other EU countries fit into British society: what they contribute and which benefits they receive.
In a speech in November last year, David Cameron went out of his way to be supportive of migration to the UK, but called for stricter controls on how the benefits system should work, specifically for migrants from the EU. This was a toned down version of what he had been expected to say – not least as Berlin and other EU capitals had expressed concern that the British prime minister might be about to blow a hole in a key EU tenet: the free movement of people.
In recent months a new movement has emerged in Germany – Pegida – which protests about what it calls the Islamisation of Europe. The group is particularly prominent in the eastern German city of Dresden, which has a tiny immigrant population. It appears to be an umbrella group which includes members from a range of Right-leaning people – from some highly undesirable Right-wing extremists, to those who claim they fear German culture is being overwhelmed by Islamic culture. This is a highly sensitive issue, not least given Germany’s 20th Century history. The Pegida movement has been condemned by, among others, the German leadership. In her new year’s address to the nation, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her fellow citizens to reject Pegida. And when its members staged demonstrations in various German cities earlier this week, they were met by much larger anti-Pegida demonstrations. And in Cologne and Berlin the lights were turned off at the cathedral and the Brandenburg Gate respectively, in order not to give the group the publicity of such iconic backdrops.
And then today, as Europe was getting back to work after the Christmas and New Year holiday and Angela Merkel flew to London for her meeting with David Cameron, twelve people (at time of writing) – ten satirical journalists and two policemen – were murdered as they went about their daily business. It is assumed the killings were carried out by Islamic extremists, protesting about the work of journalists at the French satirical magazine, “Charlie Hebdo”. The attack is thought to be the most deadly terrorist attack in France in a generation. There has been condemnation from around the world, including from the US President, Barack Obama, and the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.
The anti-Islamisation group in Germany and the French Right-wing party, the Front National, have already lined up to claim that today’s tragic events in Paris only go to strengthen their arguments.
When David Cameron and Angela Merkel appeared before the press in Downing Street this evening, there was the obvious mix of a sombre mood in light of today’s killings in Paris; interwoven with an upbeat assessment of the Anglo-British friendship.
The pair’s visit this afternoon to the current, highly successful exhibition at the British Museum on German history (“Germany: Memories of a Nation”) was designed to set the context for an up-beat meeting.
The two leaders stressed the successes in Anglo-British trade. Angela Merkel talked about the very warm reception she had received in Britain and in particular from David Cameron. While she once again said this evening that it will be up to the British people to decide if they want to remain inside the EU (in the planned in/out referendum in 2017), Dr Merkel again made clear her preference for the UK to remain a full member of the EU club. And the Prime Minister too said his preference was for Britain to stay in, a comment that was met with enthusiastic chancellorial nodding (albeit slightly delayed, as a result of the translation).
Angela Merkel stressed she was keen to work with David Cameron on resolving the problems that the UK currently has with the EU – but she made it very clear that Freedom of Movement within the EU must stay.
As the ‘what if’ questions began – “What if the UK were to leave the EU?”; “What if the UK’s relationship with the EU were to become like Switzerland’s?” – Chancellor Merkel took cover in her usual shelter: “I never answer speculative questions and I’m not about to change that habit here in Downing Street,” she smiled.
Her host was delighted. David Cameron said he very much supported (and appreciated?) this policy of not answering speculative questions (which he described as “another great German invention”…!) and led his guest back into the off-limits part of Downing Street.
It remains to be seen which issues in the EU reform discussions will be on or off limits.