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Is Cameron and Merkel's EU rebel alliance really a new hope?

By Mark Wallace
Follow Mark on Twitter.

Cameron fenceThere are two schools of political thought on August campaigning. Many groups, MPs and departments essentially shut up shop, in part because they want to go on holiday but largely because while Parliament is closed they deem media coverage to be pointless. They abandon the airwaves and headlines to silly season stories.

Others, who tend to be rather more enterprising, view August as an opportunity. Because the Commons isn't sitting, political news is more thinly spread, meaning that there is a chance to secure page leads and top billing for issues which during term time might only get a brief snippet on page 27. A summer of hard work can mean that by the time recess ends, your previously low profile topic has gained momentum which lasts into the autumn.

One outfit which has apparently taken the latter approach is the Fresh Start Project, the backbench group which promotes EU renegotiation and is co-ordinated by Andrea Leadsom .

Yesterday we learned that they have "opened a secret back channel" to Angela Merkel to encourage her to support Cameron's approach to repatriating powers. The Mail reported it as a "major boost for Cameron". 

Today, there's more. The Times puts the Merkel news in context by reporting that it has emboldened the Government's fight to regain power over who can and cannot access British benefits. The Telegraph welcomes the news that sceptics have found "a friend in the leader of the eurozone’s most successful economy".

The tone is enthusiastic, which is unsurprising from a group which certainly leans more towards the Prime Minister's renegotiation proposal than the average backbencher would in private. Leadsom and her colleagues have made some radical proposals, including giving national parliaments more power to scrutinise and veto EU proposals, but they are certainly not outists.

All the signs suggest that we are being prepared for David Cameron to be able to present a negotiated success after EU meetings in the autumn, backed by Angela Merkel. This coverage reads like the preamble for just such a PR drive.

But while eurosceptic noises from the German Chancellor are welcome, on the principle that any movement in the right direction is better than nothing, there are reasons for us to be wary.

As regular readers will know, I believe we should leave the EU. That isn't down to dogma, it's down to my view that bitter experience tells us that Brussels does not have a reverse gear - it is set up for ever closer union and nothing less. If renegotiation was to succeed, and leave us permanently with a free trade agreement and no other baggage beyond the title "Member of the EU", I'd be more than happy to accept it. I just don't think it's possible, given the nature of the beast.

To see the problems with the Merkel hype, we must ask two questions:

1) Will these talks produce the right results in the short term?

Today's Telegraph editorial rightly raises the point that the German Chancellor does not share all of David Cameron's ambitions, still less all those of the Tory backbenches or the British public. She may be on-side over cutting EU bureaucracy and regaining control over welfare, but she certainly does not share the Fresh Start Project's desire to repatriate control over social and employment law, for example.

Having an ally on any kind of EU reform is a refreshing change, and Merkel is the strongest ally you could have. But just as a convoy can only move as fast as its slowest ship, a renegotiation will only proceed as far as she agrees with us. On current evidence, that isn't very far, even with an election coming up and pressure being applied from a new German eurosceptic party. The prospects may well shrink further once she's safely re-elected.

2) Will any result the talks do secure actually last in the long term?

Even if we did get the policy changes that Merkel currently agrees with the Prime Minister on, there is a serious structural threat to their longevity.

Included in the Mail's initial report yesterday, though much overlooked amid the general fanfare, was a quote from Berlin clarifying that:

"they were not in favour of ‘re-opening existing treaties’"

That sound you can hear is the plan stumbling over a block.

One of David Cameron's core principles when he announced his renegotiation was that the treaties should be amended to exempt us from "ever closer union", the commitment which drives endless integration. That phrase is written into every treaty since the Treaty of Rome. If Merkel isn't willing to reopen them to remove it (and plenty of other clauses), then the process will simply carry on as usual, with power in the hands of the integrationist Commission and European Court of Justice.

Ultimately, any renegotiation without re-opening the treaties will at most be a bump on the road to a United States of Europe. Until that's on the table, the champagne should remain un-popped.


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