LONDON: Angela Merkel will take tea with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and address parliament on Thursday as David Cameron tries to win the German chancellor’s backing for EU reform.
Cameron is rolling out what the British press called the “reddest of red carpets” for Merkel, in contrast to a low-key welcome for French President Francois Hollande last month.
In the leader of Europe’s top economy, Cameron sees a potential ally for his plans to change the EU’s treaties before holding a referendum on Britain’s membership in 2017.
Merkel’s speech to members of both chambers of parliament is the first by a German leader since president Richard von Weizsaecker did so in 1986.
US President Barack Obama and French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy are among the other foreign leaders to have spoken to the Houses of Commons and Lords. The German chancellor will also hold talks and a press conference with Cameron, before going to Buckingham Palace to meet the queen.
The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Merkel may be prepared to back some concessions in order to keep Britain in the EU.
Citing a senior Berlin source, the paper said that Merkel may consider backing Cameron’s call for assurances that eurozone members will not gang up against non-members when voting on the future of the single market.
It also said she may be open to limited opt-outs for Britain and a less rigid implementation of EU rules, but analysts warned that Merkel was restricted in what she could offer her fellow conservative.
“I think her hands are very, very tied by her ‘grand coalition’ in Berlin,” Simon Hix, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics, told AFP.
Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) lead a shaky two-month-old coalition with their Bavarian CSU sister party and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Germany has been particularly lukewarm towards Cameron’s plans to change the 28-member bloc’s treaties, which are opposed by France and many other EU nations.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said last week that Germany wants an “active, strong Britain in the EU” and added that it would “be a topic” of her speech.
Yet The Times of London newspaper said Cameron was “deluding himself if he thinks that the German Chancellor will save him from his “troubled and troublesome party”.
Under pressure from the eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives, Cameron announced last year that he wanted to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe, then hold an in-out referendum in late 2017, provided he returns to office in a general election in May 2015.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said Merkel’s visit would form part of that effort.
“Germany is our most important partner on seeking reform in the European Union because it’s Germany that has such a strong position in the eurozone,” Hague told the BBC.
Hague said he was “sure” they would discuss the issue of free movement, a key concern for British voters after EU rules on migration from Eastern states were relaxed in January.
But there is no doubt Cameron is trying to woo like-minded EU nations, having hosted Dutch premier Mark Rutte at his country residence last week.
Almut Moeller, from Berlin-based think-tank the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Germany had to make an effort to keep Britain in the EU “but not at any cost.”
Hix said Merkel wanted Britain in the EU and believed the bloc would be “less important in the world” without the EU’s third biggest economy and a nuclear-armed UN Security Council member.
Cameron will be hoping to capitalise on his strong personal relationship with Merkel — their families are said to have bonded during last year’s visit to the German leader’s country house — but a recent improvement in the relationship between Merkel and Hollande could weaken his bargaining position.
With most European centre-right parties facing pressure from anti-migration parties, she might also give him “behind-the scenes” support on tightening free movement.
But Germany’s priority, and the rest of Europe’s, remains fixing the eurozone.
“To Cameron wingeing on the sidelines, the attitude on the continent is ‘just shut up and go away,’” said Hix.
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