By Paul Goodman
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Angela Merkel has an election to fight and voters to please, and that they now lead northern Europeans in subsidising southern ones isn't pleasing them at all. David Cameron also has an election to contest (though a little further off) and Euro-sceptic voters and MPs to placate. The two thus have a mutual interest in cosying up – evidence of which has been on display not just during the Prime Minister's visit to Germany, but since. Both earlier and today, Downing Street has been briefing that the Merkels' dinner for the Camerons is a sign that the two governments are of one mind, and that Germany is ready for treaty change, as the Prime Minister wants.
It's true that Germany and Britain have long had a similar outlook on many Europe-related matters: both are, broadly, pro-American and pro-free trade; both, too, are rules-observant, corruption-averse countries with a tradition of what's been labelled the Protestant work ethic. However, their outlooks on the EU have long been fundamentally in conflict. Germany has always wanted political union – for the E.U to be a zollverein, an ever-closer union, on the model of the one in which its own origins are to be found. Britain has wanted to see the European project as a common market only.
To date, Merkel has had little reason to listen to Cameron or his ideas, but now has solid grounds at least to humour them. She will have an eye not only on Germany's elections, but on any longer-term change in its mood. Italian voters are admittedly more volatile than Teuton ones, but Merkel will remember Beppe Grillo crashing the party, and be wary of a force gathering in Germany unprecedented since the war – namely, a popular Euro-sceptic movement. Cameron, meanwhile, wants that new treaty and, in particular, concessions to Britain – enough to allow him to recommend a Yes vote in an In-Out referendum and keep most of his party with him.
For all Merkel's domestic pressures, I find it hard to see her simply plunging into the known and unknown unknowns of a new treaty negotiation, or of Francois Hollande, and others, just shrugging his shoulders and going along with the idea. Nor is it easy to imagine a few safeguards for the City, and some concessions on social and employment laws, satisfying Euro-sceptic Conservative backbenchers, in the event of a Tory election victory and a consequent referendum. None the less, it's clear that keeping the next manifesto vague, making a few diplomatic gains (after 2015) and presenting them as a major triumph is the Prime Minister's strategic aim.
The way in which Merkel and Cameron are being drawn together by mutual though narrow interests – both also want to rein in the EU's budget – is eerily reminscent of the coming-together of another Christian Democrat Chancellor and another British Prime Minister. Like Merkel, Helmut Kohl was the dominant European politician of his day. Like Cameron, John Major governed in precarious circumstances and had a Euro-sceptic majority on his backbenches. "Major's bond with Kohl was to pay real dividends in the days that lay ahead," Anthony Seldon writes of the period pre-Maastricht. As in so many other ways, Cameron is Major's pupil.