What we have today is a story based on speculation about what (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel might have said about something (British Prime Minister) David Cameron might say in the future," said David Davis, a prominent Conservative member of parliament, in London on Sunday. So no big deal, then?
It's a very big deal: Merkel is pulling the rug out from under Cameron. For all his tough talk about renegotiating the terms of Britain's membership in the European Union, she is saying, he has no cards in his hand.
At the EU summit on Oct. 25, Cameron said that changing the existing rules that guarantee freedom of movement for workers within the EU would be "at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe." No, said Angela Merkel, it won't work: "We have the basic principle of free movement. We won't meddle with that."
In other words, if Cameron doesn't like the membership rules, tough. He can hold a referendum if he wants, and leave the EU if he wins. But there's no way he can get the other 27 members to change the basic rules of the organization just to solve his little political problem at home.
In fact, Merkel will even try to ensure that Cameron loses next year's British election so that there is no referendum on Britain's EU membership. Being an experienced politician, however, Merkel delivered that part of her message in a deniable way.
It was officials from Merkel's own office and the German foreign ministry who briefed the newsmagazine Der Spiegel on her plans in that regard. They were not to be quoted by name — and it was left to the rest of us to figure out what her words would do to Cameron's re-election chances.
Cameron has recently been talking about imposing "quotas" on low-skilled people from other EU countries moving to Britain, in a desperate attempt to get around the EU rules. "Should Cameron persist (in this quota plan), Chancellor Angela Merkel would abandon her efforts to keep Britain in the EU," Merkel's officials told Der Spiegel. "With that a point of no return would be reached." Shape up or ship out.
Merkel has launched a counter-strike that may well bring Cameron down. By making it crystal clear that his "renegotiation" strategy cannot work, she is effectively telling British voters that if they re-elect Cameron's Conservatives in the election that is due next May, they will be voting to leave the EU. The election itself becomes a referendum on EU membership — a referendum which she obviously thinks Cameron will lose.
She is probably right. For all the fulmination in the British right-wing press about the country being overrun by immigrants from poorer EU countries, public support for EU membership in Britain is higher than it has been since 1991. It is still only a modest 56 per cent, but that is a lot higher than the 44 per cent support that the same Ipsos MORI polling organization found only two years ago.
The truth is that only 13 per cent of Britain's population is "foreign-born," exactly the same as the immigrant share in the population of the United States or Germany. The immigrants are not taking British jobs: the U.K. has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. The problem is perceptions — and particularly the perceptions of those who normally vote Conservative.
The right-wing media in Britain, as in most countries, pander to the nationalism and the fear of foreigners that is rampant among the older and the poorer sections of the population. Too many foreigners coming in, living off our taxes and stealing our jobs is a simple (though rarely an accurate) explanation for why this section of the population feels marginalized, so this narrative works well with them.
Britain is pulling in more EU workers than usual because its economy is doing relatively better than Germany, France, Spain, etc. The numbers are not overwhelming, but under EU rules Britain has no right to bar them, so anti-EU nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment have grown into a stronger force than usual — but only on the right.
This would normally be to the advantage of the Conservative Party, whose own right-wing "backwoodsmen" share these views. In normal times, when the grown-ups are in charge, the party harvests these votes each election while never intending to do anything so foolish economically as to actually quit the EU.
Cameron belongs to the grown-up majority in the Conservative Party, and is not personally anti-EU. But the emergence and explosive growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), specifically tailored to appeal to the anti-immigrant-and-EU vote, has panicked the right wing of the Conservative Party.
Cameron has had to move further and further right to placate them and compete with UKIP, so he can no longer afford to be sensible about the EU. Merkel has understood this, and has effectively written him off even though she is a conservative herself. Her strategy now is to force Cameron into an openly anti-EU stance, split the right-wing vote in Britain evenly between the Conservatives and UKIP, and open the way for Labour to win the election.
Because that's the only way she can see to keep Britain in the European Union.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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