On the final stage of the prime minister’s two-day tour of four European capitals, the German chancellor adopted an emollient tone as she expressed the hope that a deal could be agreed with Britain.
“Wherever there is a desire, there is also a way, and this should be our guiding principle here,” Merkel said after talks at the German chancellery in Berlin.
Cameron travelled to Berlin after one of his central demands – banning EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits for four years – was given a frosty reception in Warsaw by his Polish counterpart, Ewa Kopacz. The Polish prime minister, who faces a tough general election in the autumn and is unlikely to cave in to Britain, accused Cameron of tabling discriminatory proposals targeted at Poles.
Cameron is understood to have tried to reassure Kopacz that his plans would not discriminate against Polish citizens because they would apply to all EU migrants. But the penalising of EU citizens enjoying the freedom to work in the UK is one of the most controversial and also most substantive items on the prime minister’s shopping list.
British officials working on Cameron’s renegotiation plan accept that his plans to restrict access to in-work benefits for EU migrants is emerging as one of the most difficult items. Government lawyers have advised No 10 that the changes would have to be underpinned in the Lisbon treaty to ensure that the UK could not be taken to the European court of justice for breaching the EU’s rules on the free movement of people.
It is understood that British officials will argue that it is difficult to accuse the UK of discriminating against EU citizens by denying them the same access to tax credits as British citizens, because of differences between welfare systems across the EU. Other EU states have contributory welfare systems which means that UK citizens working in some EU countries are denied access to some benefits.
The atmosphere on Cameron’s tour improved when he flew from Warsaw to Berlin for talks with Merkel who will be the central figure in the negotiations that will take place round the table of the European council of EU leaders. She said she accepted his call for the EU to recognise that some member states do not feel comfortable with greater European integration, as she acknowledged there was a two-speed Europe.
Merkel suggested that she might be open to revising the Lisbon treaty. Government lawyers have advised Cameron, who has spoken of the need for “full-on” treaty change, that he will need to underpin his benefit changes in a revised treaty.
But the German chancellor made clear that it was important to agree on the substance of reform before deciding on the mechanism for delivering the change. Merkel said: “It is 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? But, of course, if you are convinced of a content, of a substance, then we shouldn’t be saying, well, to change the treaty is totally impossible.”
Merkel made clear that she hoped Britain would remain in the EU, though she said it was a matter for UK voters to decide in the referendum that is to be held by the end of 2017.
Cameron was greeted with a full military guard of honour and a red carpet in Berlin. Over a working lunch of shrimp tartare, veal escalope, asparagus and potatoes, followed by strawberries, the two discussed the issues that will appear on the agenda of the G7 meeting next week and thrashed out their differences and commonalities over European reform.
Merkel faces a balancing act between fighting to keep in the EU a Britain that is seen as recalcitrant and ungrateful by most Germans, while appearing not to concede to its demands. If a Brexit were to happen on her watch, those close to her cautiously admit that she would consider it one of the failures of her tenure as German chancellor.
Cameron said he was confident he would eventually renegotiate Britain’s EU membership terms. “Of course there is no magic big solution,” he said. “But as the chancellor has said previously and again today: where there is a will, there is a way. The EU has shown before that when one of its member states has a problem that needs sorting out it can be flexible enough to do so. I have every confidence it will do so again. The EU is better off with the UK as a member and I believe that the British national interest can best be served by staying in the EU on the basis of a reformed settlement.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt and Kate Connolly, for theguardian.com on Friday 29th May 2015 17.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010