22nd Mar 2018

Merkel boosts Cameron's EU reform plan

  • Cameron and Merkel in Berlin - the UK leader wants to visit all member states before the June summit (Photo: Downing Street)

German chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated she’s willing to go as far as changing the EU treaty in order to keep Britain in the Union.

“Wherever there is a will, there is also a way, and this should be our guiding principle,” she told press after meeting the UK leader, David Cameron, in Berlin on Friday (29 May).

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She voiced "clear hope to see Britain remain in the European Union" and "agreed to co-operate in this process”.

The Berlin trip is part of Cameron’s tour of all EU capitals ahead of next month's EU summit and ahead of his referendum on EU membership, to be held by the end of 2017.

He has promised to campaign for a Yes, but only if EU leaders agree to far-reaching reforms.

Merkel said she’s willing to consider treaty change, but noted that London should first draw up concrete demands.

"It’s worth talking about the content, the substance. We also need to talk about what needs to be changed. Is it necessary to change the treaty, can it be changed via a secondary process?”, she said.

“But, of course, if we are convinced on the content, on substance, then we shouldn’t be saying: ‘Well, to change the treaty is totally impossible’.”

She also voiced willingness to grant the UK an opt-out from “ever closer Union”.

The phrase is contained in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding charter, but Merkel said it doesn’t reflect contemporary reality.

“A Europe of two speeds is effectively our reality today … We already have different speeds and I have no problem at all to have this principle of different speeds in the future”.

Cameron, on Friday morning, also met Polish PM Ewa Kopacz in Warsaw.

One big topic in the UK debate is internal EU migration and welfare benefits.

The number of Poles in Britain was fewer than 100,000 prior to EU enlargement, but later jumped to more than half a million, prompting attacks by British tabloids and right-wing parties.

Red line

Kopacz said she’s “against any solution which leads to discrimination against Polish people or any other EU citizens who work legally in the UK”.

Rafal Trzaskowski, her EU affairs minister, told press: “Cameron clearly said he isn’t against free movement of workers per se, but that we should reconsider whether welfare benefits should stay on the same level as today”.

He added that Poland, like Britain, is in favour of deregulation - “withdrawing certain directives, which have no added value” - and of giving national MPs more say on EU legislation.

The British leader, on Thursday, visited The Hague and Paris.

The Dutch and French leaders were concilliatory. But the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, accused him of trying to “dismantle” the EU.

For his part, Cameron, in Berlin, said Merkel and he “have a similar outlook on many issues”, listing fiscal prudence, US relations, and free trade.

He said there’s no “magic solution” to Britain’s EU gripes, but voiced “every confidence” the bloc will show flexibility.

“The EU is better off with the UK as a member and I believe the British national interest can best be served by staying in the EU on the basis of a reformed settlement”, he added.

Treaty change-lite

The UK published its referendum bill on Thursday, containing the question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”.

Speculation in Brussels favours an early date for the vote.

Cameron is in a strong position after his recent election win, while Ukip, the main anti-EU party, is struggling with an internal leadership battle.

French and German leaders are also less likely to make concessions the closer they get to 2017, when both face general elections.

Despite Merkel’s words, an EU source said there’s “no appetite” for treaty change at this point.

The process, which can take years, would, in any case, be almost impossible to complete in time for the UK vote.

But a second EU source said the treaty will, most likely, be amended down the line in order to set in stone the EU’s post-financial crisis reforms.

One solution could be to give the UK a legal promise that changes agreed now will be inserted later on.

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