Anti-European Sentiment Grows German Warnings to Britain Fall on Deaf Ears
Growing ranks of euroskeptics in the UK have Prime Minister Cameron scrambling to adjust his country's relationship with the EU. And diplomatic warnings from Germany and the US against such measures have only further encouraged anti-EU voices there.
Gunther Krichbaum is a quiet man who rarely makes front-page news in Germany. But the member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) did just that in the United Kingdom last week.
"One of Angela Merkel's closest allies has warned David Cameron not to try to blackmail the rest of Europe," wrote the Guardian. The tabloid Daily Mail called Krichbaum's remarks "effrontery." And Douglas Carswell, a parliamentarian with Prime Minister Cameron's Conservative Party, said that Britons "don't want to live a life directed by Germany."
The comments were sparked by statements Krichbaum made in London after traveling there with a delegation of German parliamentarians for political talks. Krichbaum, who chairs the European affairs committee of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, had warned against the UK's possible isolation within the European Union, saying that it "cannot be in Britain's interest."
The statements were prompted by Cameron's announcement that the UK intends to loosen its ties with the EU in some shared policy areas. His statements also couched a threat. If the UK's European partners refused to consent to its plans, he suggested, it might block efforts by Germany and other member countries to further integrate the euro zone. When asked how Germany might respond to this threat, Krichbaum said: "You cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states."
Fears of a Referendum
It might have surprised Chancellor Merkel to learn that people abroad view Krichbaum as a member of her innermost circle. But it wouldn't have bothered her, because she probably tends to agree with what he said. For weeks, in both official meetings and through unofficial channels, Merkel's conservative government has been sending Cameron the same message: We want to keep you in the EU -- but we won't create a new EU just for you.
It's no coincidence that this message is growing louder, either. Cameron plans to deliver a long-awaited keynote speech on EU policy in the coming days. Both Merkel's Chancellery and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs fear that he will use the speech to announce a referendum on the UK's membership in the EU, in addition to making further concessions to the euroskeptics within his party. Before that happens, Berlin wants to clarify what will be tolerated -- and what won't.
The German government has already said multiple times that Cameron shouldn't expect much accommodation in the matter. Granting the British additional special rights, it argues, would prompt other countries to make similar demands -- something Berlin certainly intends to prevent. "Europe isn't some event at which everyone can do whatever they feel like," says one senior government advisor. "In the end, the British have to decide whether they want to remain in the European Union or not."
High-ranking diplomats from both countries had a chance to discuss their differences shortly before Christmas at a closed-door meeting in Berlin at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). The Germans in attendance got the impression that the British were unwilling to budge. "In London, they think they have the upper hand," says one top German diplomat. "They already made the same mistake two Decembers ago, when they blocked the fiscal compact." The agreement championed by Merkel obliges signatories to implement balanced-budget legislation and accept automatic sanctions for violating the new deficit rules. In the end, it was signed and implemented without British or Czech support as an international treaty outside the EU legal framework.
Euroskeptics Gain Ground
There is growing concern in Germany that Cameron won't be able to keep Britain in the EU despite his own desire to prevent an exit. His plan to renegotiate the country's position within the 27-member bloc is an attempt to mollify an increasing number of euroskeptics who are becoming more radical.
"There is a great danger that Great Britain's exit from the EU will become a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Barbara Lippert, the SWP's director or research. "The pressure on Cameron from the right wing of his party is enormous." However, Lippert also concedes that, if a referendum were to be held, "the pro-European forces will also make themselves better heard."
Last Wednesday, Germany received clear and unexpected support for its position. Philip Gordon, the United States' assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, used a visit to London to make it clear what Washington thinks about Britain's plans. "We want to see a strong British voice in (the) European Union," Gordon said, adding that this would also be the best thing for the "special relationship" between the British and the Americans.
Still, it's doubtful whether Germany's refusal to compromise or US interventions will succeed in influencing sentiments in the UK. Warnings by the country's partners seem to have had little influence on the anti-European press. "How Dare the US Lecture Us about Staying in the EU" read the headline for one outraged commentary in the tabloid Express. Janice Atkinson, its author, went on to surmise that, even though she is "not a conspiracy theorist," the fact that Cameron is about to give his speech and Gordon and Krichbaum issued "parallel" warnings on the same day "suggests that somebody is manipulating us."
It seems that rational arguments don't get very far in today's debate over whether Britain should remain in the EU.
Translated from the German by Josh Ward