The World from Berlin 'EU Has Bigger Worries than British Euroskeptics'

In the run-up to British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to Berlin, comments by a prominent conservative German politician underscored the tensions in relations between Germany and Britain in the euro crisis. German editorialists on Friday mull over a delicate relationship that could grow more fragile if Chancellor Angela Merkel pushes for even deeper EU integration.  
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the recent G-20 summit in Cannes, France

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the recent G-20 summit in Cannes, France

Foto: Toby Melville/ dpa

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in Berlin Friday to visit with Chancellor Angela Merkel amidst growing tensions between Britain and Germany over the way forward in the euro crisis. Euroskepticism is rising even further in Britain as the debt crisis worsens in continental Europe. Calls from the right wing of Cameron's Conservatives for Britain to take powers back from Brussels are growing, and fears are increasing that Germany, France and the other 15 euro-zone countries will create a two-speed Europe.  British euroskeptics are also worried that the members of the common currency will in the future make European Union decisions without Britain even in the room that would put the City of London, Europe's financial capital, at a competitive disadvantage.

At a party conference of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats earlier this week, Volker Kauder, the CDU's floor leader in parliament, triggered a tabloid war  against Germany in Britain with his comments that the Brits are "just looking for their own advantage and not being prepared to contribute." Pouring further fuel on the flames, he added that, "Suddenly Europe is speaking German."

Kauder's criticism of Britain was primarily directed at London's opposition to a so-called Tobin tax on financial transactions. The proposed tax has created significant tensions between euro-zone countries and nations that have not adopted the common currency, including Britain, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria. Even some euro-zone countries, including the Netherlands, Italy and Finland have expressed reservations -- particularly if the effort isn't supported by the 10 non-euro-zone members.

But Britain remains an important partner to Germany, and it is likely Cameron and Merkel will seek to play down the rift on Friday. The Financial Times reported on its website Thursday that Cameron is likely to propose a deal to Merkel during his meeting on Friday. Merkel is keen to change the treaties regulating the European Union in order to strengthen economic union in the euro zone, but also to cement tougher fiscal discipline among the 17 euro-zone members. The paper said Cameron would likely agree to those changes if Merkel provided an "emergency brake" for Britain that would protect London from "discriminatory behavior" in exchange.

The British prime minister's visit dominates the opinion pages in German papers on Friday. Most editorialists agree that CDU politician Kauder's comments have infused an unwelcome emotional element into British-German relations in the run-up to what most believe will be a tough visit. At the same time, most take a critical view of Britain's role in the EU.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Either Kauder has a plan whose genius is so far apparent only to him, or he's frighteningly ignorant of our island-dwelling neighbors."

"Cameron and Chancellor Merkel, in the past year, have established a 'very honest and open partnership.' If Kauder understands this to mean that he can voice his opinion as he likes to the British, he's way out of bounds. Even enlightened British commentators are infuriated. The essentially German-friendly historian Timothy Garton Ash suggested a whole new German word on Thursday in the Guardian. Playing on the German word Kauderwelsch , or gibberish, he suggests the verb 'to Kauder' -- 'to bring the late-night language of the pub to the European political stage.'"

"Kauder has not just struck the wrong note. He has further emotionalized the debate over Europe. It's a difficult enough topic, and here comes a German to reprimand the British and add that the rest of Europe now speaks his language. There is no worse image in Britain. It's the image of the hateful German, reaching again -- absurd as this may currently sound -- for power."

"For the chancellor, who wants to sway London towards a Tobin tax and more support for the EU, the meeting with Cameron will now be more difficult."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Britain is fighting for its future in Europe more vigorously than it has in a long time. No one doubts that the tectonic plates are shifting in the Old World. But where are they going? The Continent, from which Britain always tried to keep its distance, is unmistakably heading toward a future of more integration, right in front of Albion's front door. The $64,000 question is being posed again: What do you think of the Germans?"

"Kauder's intervention has given Cameron unexpected relief ahead of his meeting with Merkel. Now he can turn the tables on Berlin. It's a shame, because the Briton is playing a strange game. 'We skeptics have a vital point,' he said during a speech in the City of London this week which was clearly aimed at the euroskeptics in his Tory party. 'We should look skeptically at grand plans and utopian visions.' But Cameron himself is chasing after grand plans and utopian visions. He is constantly talking of 'repatriating' powers back to the United Kingdom from Brussels. Does he have nothing else to say about the future of Europe than the constant mantra of a Little Englander? Does he not know about the new treaty negotiations that would be necessary in such a case -- at a time when Europe has bigger things to worry about than the concerns of British euroskeptics?"

"A deep crack is running through Europe. ... This is neither the time for Germany as the 'teacher of Europe' nor for Britain as small-minded populists. We have to tackle the crisis together -- or we will fall together as a result."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The dispute over the financial transaction tax threatens to render Britain powerless. If Cameron applies his country's veto power at the EU, then the 17 euro-zone member states have indicated they will go it alone, without regard to the City of London's dominant position as a financial capital. Kauder has sworn European solidarity, but what the Brits see is a 'bullet in the heart of the City' and a need for the euro-zone countries to fill their coffers."

"Cameron needs an assurance from Merkel that the voice of the 'outs' will still have weight and that the City of London can be protected from attacks from Europe. But why should the chancellor take care of the Brits when they have so little to offer at this point in time? She's already shown Cameron the limits of her tolerance: If he hampers Germany's efforts to reform the EU treaties, then the 17 euro-zone members will take care of it themselves."

"But Germans have a better memory than the French of the complicated outsider role played by the Brits and its importance in European history. Would it be prudent to marginalize them and to eschew their weight in foreign policy? And what would Europe's defensive capabilities be without Britain? Without the Brits, would we have the European common market that we have today? And what position would Germany be in if its last closest major partner was the French?"

"Despite all their unease about the EU, the Brits have often also played a constructive role in Europe. To threaten them now with Kauder's 'you're either in or you're out' tone is just as foreign as the hope that the entire Mediterranean area can be transformed into a clone of German economic virtues. Accepting partners as they are is part of the art of diplomacy for stronger countries."

Taking a critical view of the much-discussed transaction tax, the Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"In the midst of the turmoil in Europe, Cameron is seeking the most comfortable path. He wants Britain to have a say in the financial crisis, but he doesn't want his country to have to pay for it. He wants to prevent a core Europe (of Germany and France) from forming, but at the same time he is unwilling to contribute to deeper European integration. Great Britain is lacking a constructive approach. That's why the government in London shouldn't be surprised that it is hearing an increasing number of European countries sigh words like: Things would be a lot easier if we didn't have the Brits."

"If the right wing of his party had a say in the matter, Britain would leave the EU. But Cameron appreciates the advantages of the internal market for Europe's third largest economy and rejects this thoughtless determination. Thus, the prime minister will have to make do with a chancellor who is influencing Europe's future considerably through the Berlin-Paris axis. The main point of dispute is the planned tax on trading, which would weaken London as a financial capital. The tax is highly symbolic in nature and it wouldn't necessarily even bring in very high revenues for the EU because it could actually divert financial flows away from Europe. Perhaps Cameron can still talk Merkel out of it. That would also come at a price: For the good of Europe."

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