German chancellor Angela Merkel has signalled she is willing to work with Britain on reform of the European Union, but warned it will not be “a piece of cake”.
After talks with Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, Mrs Merkel said the two leaders shared “a lot of common ground” on the need for change in the way the EU works, and indicated that she wants action to stop freedom of movement rights being abused for benefit tourism.
The chancellor was given the red-carpet treatment on her one-day visit to London, addressing both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster and taking tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, prompting one German reporter to remark that she was being received as “the Queen of Europe”.
In a speech which will be closely scrutinised for evidence of Berlin’s willingness to co-operate with Mr Cameron’s plans to renegotiate Britain’s membership ahead of an in/out referendum in 2017, Mrs Merkel left no doubt that Germany wants the UK to stay in the EU.
Germany sees Britain as an “important ally” in the work of changing the EU for the better, she told MPs and peers, adding: “We need a strong United Kingdom with a strong voice inside the European Union.”
Mr Cameron said: “My objective is clear – I want to be able to say to the British people, in a referendum that will take place by the end of 2017, that we’ve sufficiently reformed the EU that they should vote to stay in it. But be in no doubt, it will be an in/out referendum.”
Issues to be addressed included the protection of the interests of non-euro members of the single market as the eurozone integrates, as well as “excessive interference and meddling by European institutions in our national life”, Mr Cameron said.
Mrs Merkel said: “All these issues need to be addressed openly and candidly. I believe in this. It’s not a piece of cake, it’s going to be a lot of work, but we’ve already worked quite hard on other issues.”
In an address delivered partly in English and partly in German, Mrs Merkel offered a staunch defence of the EU’s record in delivering “almost half a century of peace, freedom and prosperity” and said that the 28-nation bloc – battered by the economic crisis and the instability of the euro – can still serve as “a model for other regions of the world”. The German Chancellor put forward no concrete proposals for reform of the EU’s rules, but accepted the need to deal with “mistakes” in the policy of free movement of EU citizens and said that “unnecessary red tape” from Brussels needed to be subject to regular reviews and scrapped when it was holding back the continent.
And, in comments which appeared to offer encouragement to the Prime Minister’s hopes of securing sufficient reform to allow him to campaign for continued EU membership, Mrs Merkel made clear that she accepted the need for the European Union to change and suggested that differences between London and Berlin may amount to no more than “details”.
Mrs Merkel’s visit to London comes at a time when the Prime Minister is under pressure to spell out what powers he hopes to repatriate from Brussels in the renegotiation promised if the Conservatives win next year’s election.