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UK election puts Germany in the spotlight

Tom Barfield · 8 May 2015, 10:58

Published: 08 May 2015 10:58 GMT+02:00

Cameron's promise to put the UK's membership of the European Union to a vote in 2017 and the massive surge of support for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) will likely see the country consumed with its internal politics.

Meanwhile, elections the same year in France could see the eurosceptic National Front divide the country, leaving Germany the only one of Europe's three largest nations with the stability to look to a long-term vision.

“I hope Brexit will finally replace Grexit” as the defining issue in Europe, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) MP Klaus-Peter Willsch told a meeting of the British Chamber of Commerce and think-tank Open Europe Berlin in the capital on Friday morning.

“Britain is vital for Europe, it's an important trading partner and a help in the fight against the ideological building-up of Europe”.

Willsch, himself a eurosceptic, hopes that the prospect of a referendum will force other European leaders to reconsider their drive towards greater integration.

“Britain looks to Germany. That's a positive development in recent years,” Social Democratic Party (SPD) MP and deputy leader of the UK-Germany parliamentary friendship group Jens Zimmermann said.

“We have a responsibility to make positive use of the respect we now have [in Britain], but in the end it's a choice for the British.”

Uphill battle to change the EU

While both MPs agreed that Germany could help provide the arguments to convince British voters to stick with the EU, there were warnings that the British Conservatives may not see all their demands met.

Returning some of the powers that EU member states have given to Brussels – one of the Conservatives' key demands - would require changing the treaties that set out how the EU works.

But there is little appetite for revisiting those hard-fought agreements among the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, or other European leaders.

“Parliaments would never agree treaty change,” said Dr. Hermann Freiherr von Richtofen, a former German ambassador to the UK.

“Other ways have to be found. We have to convince UK voters that staying in doesn't mean more integration.”

Willsch hoped that together, the UK and Germany could counter pro-integration voices in Europe from France and southern European nations.

“We can be a bulwark together against Germany-unfriendly policies,” he said, pointing especially to bailouts for Greece and the European Central Bank's policy of printing money to buy hundreds of billions of Euros in government debt through its quantitative easing programme.

Germany goes it alone

In the meantime, the trend of recent years which has seen Germany take a leading role in European foreign policy is set to continue, as Britain remains wrapped up in its own problems and France lacks the confidence to take on the world.

That has seen Merkel become the principal Western negotiator with Russian President Vladimir Putin following his annexation of the Crimea and support for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine.

Both MPs agreed that Germany should spend more on its military, which has been stretched to the limits of its budget and equipment by recent interventions in the Ebola crisis in western Africa and in the Middle East against Isis.

But von Richthofen warned that there were limits to what Germany could achieve without the backing of its European partners.

“We can't work alone as nation-states any longer on questions like Russia and the Middle East," he said.

'Cameron will demand concessions'

In terms of the media reaction, there was a mood of suspicion towards the Conservative victory, with newspapers focusing on what it meant for the future of Europe.

Spiegel interpreted the election result in the European context, leading with the blunt headline "Bad news for Europe."

"Firstly this is a bad result for Europe. It means that Cameron, the weak leader, will become even more susceptible to pressure from within his own party. The eurosceptic loudmouths from the back-benches will become even more powerful," wrote Christoph Scheuermann.

The article also argued that the politically divided UK will intensify the debate over a possible Brexit.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung spoke of having to “rub one's eyes” when the results were announced, expressing disbelief at how misleading opinion polls had been.

While the paper expressed anxiety at the repercussions for Europe, it attributed Cameron's victory to the sound economic judgement he had demonstrated in his first term.

Under the headline “What's in store for Europe” the paper said that David Cameron will enter negotiations with EU over the terms of Britain's membership with “newly won confidence, of that Europe can be certain. He will demand concessions.”

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“Cameron and his conservatives have won a great victory. It is also a victory for budgetary discipline, economic competitiveness and rationality. Clearly many voters were convinced by the Conservatives slogan: For a better and safer future,” read the Frankfurt daily's comment piece.

Süddeutsche Zeitung was sceptical of the surprise Conservative victory, and focused on the various problems the Prime Minister will face in his second term. "Struggling to triumph" read the headline.

"Cameron may have secured a slim overall majority, but this is far from a great victory," wrote Björn Finke.

"Cameron won this election by the skin of his teeth, because his opponents were so weak, and not because the British people are satisfied with him. Now he has five more years to turn that around," the article concluded.

Business daily Handelsblatt went with the headline 'Election winner in a torn land.'

“Cameron's surprise victory shows how divided the country is. The prime minister has more authority now, but the Euro-haters UKIP are hovering in the background. It's a big danger and a heavy inheritance.”

Handelsblatt pointed out that UKIP are now the third most popular political party in the country.

“This election accelerates dramatically historical changes that have been long in the making. For us in Europe this means the possibility of a 'Brexit.'”

Jörg Luyken and Matty Edwards contributed reporting.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tom Barfield (tom.barfield@thelocal.com)

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