Merkel in Westminster

Angela Merkel makes for an unlikely cheerleader. Nevertheless, as the European Union’s senior head of government, and the leader of Europe’s largest economy—not to mention the Continent’s most successful and longest serving current democratically elected leader who is not Vladimir Putin—the famously reserved German Chancellor often finds herself called upon to lobby her partners for greater efforts toward European solidarity and cooperation. Such a position would probably be inevitable for any contemporary German chancellor, but is even more necessary now that other candidates for the job of EU Head Cheerleader are either too anonymous (the colorless European Council president Herman van Rompuy, who is not even the first “Herman van” to show up on a Bing search) or far too well known for the wrong things (the colorlessly colorful ladies’ man, French President Francois Hollande, who has managed to gain the affection of at least two gorgeous and accomplished women in his lifetime and lose the affection of the French people as a whole in less than a year).


Merkel’s latest lobbying tour is taking her to London, where she is making a one-day visit that includes not only a reception at Buckingham Palace with the Queen, but also a speech to both Houses of Parliament and assorted dignitaries at the Palace at Westminster. Merkel follows in the footsteps of previous historical worthies who have been granted this honor, from Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama to Charles de Gaulle and Ronald Reagan. Invited by his ideological soul sister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan famously used his June 1982 speech, delivered during one of the chillier periods of the late Cold War, to proclaim his conviction that the free peoples of the world should work together to see Communism consigned to the “ash heap of history.”

Merkel can only dream of her speech having such historical resonance, though she arrives in London at a moment of similarly high political tension. The EU is still trying to dig itself out of a major economic crisis that has also undermined its political legitimacy. Meanwhile, her colleague and fellow conservative David Cameron finds himself in a serious political bind of his own creation. The United Kingdom has always had an ambivalent relationship to European integration—unwilling to run the economic risk of staying out, but equally unwilling to run the domestic political risk of embracing closer integration and being accused of betraying Britain’s sovereignty.  Cameron’s Conservatives have been generally Eurosceptic since the days of Thatcher, but Cameron has tried to massage that message since his election. He expresses sympathy for criticisms of Brussels, most famously refusing to accept the Eurozone’s fiscal compact in 2011. But he also has been lukewarm on the possibility of British withdrawal, hoping to head off such demands by promising a referendum on British membership after the next British general election, and using the intervening time to win his colleagues over for reforms to the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that would satisfy British reservations. So far that strategy has only managed to embolden British Euroskeptics and annoy many of Britain’s EU partners, neither of whom have much faith in Cameron’s ability to thread this particular needle.

Cameron counts on Merkel to be his advocate within European councils. The size and shape of the German economy means that there is at least some sympathy for British criticisms of current EU policy, and Cameron views Merkel’s successful management of a coalition government as a potential model for his own political future. The other members of the EU, however, are also counting on Merkel to act as their advocated with the British, to encourage Cameron’s government to work more cooperatively on dealing with the current Euro-malaise.

Attempting to satisfy both the British and the other European partners is a heavy burden on the blazer-clad shoulders of Chancellor Merkel.  That burden grows heavier as elections to the European Parliament (EP), scheduled for late May, draw nearer. Although the EP is still far from the pan-European legislature its founders hoped it would become, its practical authority has grown over the years, especially since the Lisbon Treaty granted it the power to approve or dismiss the EU’s main executive body, the European Commission. Aside from its limited practical role, however, the EP has often served as a symbolic rallying point for European sentiment, and that symbolism could further deepen the EU’s current crisis of legitimacy. Opinion polls suggest that the two more reliably Europhile caucuses—the Christian Democratic/Conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES)—will continue a disturbing trend of historic electoral lows as their once dominance position shrinks to a bare majority. The decline of Europhile factions is mirrored by the rise of Euroskeptical parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the French National Front (FN), or even the Alliance for Germany (AfD), who each could score significant increases. Those parties both profit from and encourage the frustrations many Europeans feel about the EU. The specific nature of those frustrations varies according to national situations. Some feel Europe is too expensive and oppressive, while others wish Europe would be more generous with the Euros of the wealthier members. Nevertheless, all agree that Europe is not sufficiently responsive to their concerns, and thus speculate about reorganization, expulsions, or even withdrawals. Cameron is especially worried about the UKIP. Its rise threatens the future of his own government, as elements of the Tory base turn away from his Euromuddle in favor of more clarified Euroskepticism.

Faced with such a complex situation, Merkel chose to say everything and nothing in her speech.  She flattered her hosts, praising the British parliament as a bastion of representative government and extolling the virtues of Anglo-German partnership. But she also remained committed to European integration, refusing to embrace the idea of a British referendum, and politely sprinkling cold water on British hopes for “fundamental reform of the European architecture.” Reforms are possible, but only if all partners work together, Merkel concluded, which led to her central pitch. “We need a strong United Kingdom with a strong voice inside the EU,” she said. “If we have that we will be able to make the necessary changes for the benefit of all.”

Thus a speech ends with a call for more speaking. The advantage of that approach is that keeping everyone talking means that no one will leave the conversation. The disadvantage is that even the friendliest conversations need to lead somewhere, if the conversation is to have any meaning at all. It is still not clear that Cameron, Merkel, or anyone else in Europe is willing or able to say exactly what they want to see happen, let alone how they plan to do it, or when they hope to see it. That kind of programmatic vagueness is fatal to even the most well-intentioned speech. It’s not all Merkel’s fault, of course. Even the most effective cheerleaders can’t rally the crowd if they don’t know what it takes to win the game.