Freedom of speech was uppermost in everyone’s mind, but even on happier days David Cameron’s has never been greeted with a passionate cry of ‘Ich liebe dich’ from a stranger in a crowd.
The German chancellor can’t escape the love even in the British Museum. Angela Merkel may not put much of a premium on empathy, oratory or anything else in the charm offensive toolkit that is considered essential for a British politician, but she inspires an affection in many of her countrymen that Cameron can only dream about.
Merkel did smile briefly but the declaration of love from a stranger wasn’t enough for her to break stride. Making sure that Britain hadn’t handed back the Parthenon (Elgin) marbles to the Greeks when the Germans were still owed shedloads of euros (as well as the Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition) were rather more compelling. An hour or so later, she returned to Downing Street to give her verdict on the exhibition at a press conference.
“I think it’s remarkable and very important,” she said in her familiar monotone. “It shows the very fruitful mutual exchanges in past centuries between European nations and it also shows the common foundation of our history and the fact that this exhibition takes place in the British museum is also something that tells us a little bit about globalisation. This exhibition makes it possible for us Germans to, from a different vantage point, look at German history.” It was doubtful if Cameron would have dared be quite so thoughtful about a Britain: Memories of a Nation exhibition in a Berlin museum.
Merkel can afford to be gracious, though. In her relationship with the prime minister she is very much the dominant figure. The less she gives away, the needier Cameron becomes. “Collaboration … long-term economic plans … single EU market …,” he said, longing for some nod of approval from Mummy while anxious to sound as independently minded as possible for the benefit of the Eurosceptics in his own party.
Merkel stared blankly ahead while listening to the simultaneous translation through an earpiece. In desperation he started nodding himself. “As Angela herself has said,” he continued, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
His relief when Merkel eventually turned his way and graced him with a nodette was evident. It was all he could do to prevent himself from throwing himself at her feet. “Oh thank you, Mummy, thank you, thank you.”
The chancellor looked back towards the audience. She doesn’t do public shows of emotion and she hadn’t quite forgiven the prime minister for bringing up the Battle of Britain at prime minister’s questions earlier in the day.
Still, the chancellor is having a few problems with the EU in her own country and these occasions are a time to let bygones be bygones, so she was happy to concede a little. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she repeated. What the will and the way are exactly was left undefined by both leaders. Perhaps it’s better that way for now. Cameron reiterated his commitment to being both a little in and a little out of Europe, while Merkel also performed her own equivocations.
“We want to see how this plays out at a local level,” she said in answer to a question on freedom of movement. “All these issues are connected to other things.” Either the translation was a bit ropey or the chancellor isn’t quite the eurodogmatist she is so often portrayed.
What would happen if Britain did leave the EU? “Ooh well, it’s hard to say, I suppose that something would happen but it probably wouldn’t so …” Cameron extemporised. “I don’t answer speculative questions,” said Merkel firmly. Mummy had spoken.
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