Merkel speech verdict: A cut-and-paste EU defence destined to be instantly forgotten

Merkel: a pedestrian case for the EU
Merkel: a pedestrian case for the EU
Ian Dunt By

The Germans did not elect Angela Merkel because of her charisma. She's not one for soaring rhetoric or dramatic oration.

There is a sort of stillness to her, a low-key, unfussy confidence. Even in a speech about the future of Europe, which is not a small subject, she couldn't resist slipping into the nitty-gritty. The poetic abstractions of which great speeches are made are alien to her.

They put the German chancellor in the Royal Gallery, presumably because Daniel Maclise's mural of Waterloo is there, showing the Duke of Wellington meeting Marshal Blucher, the leader of Prussian forces, and turning the tide of battle. The mural now looks faded and brown, the images of stout dead Englishman and firm military handshakes hard to decipher. Make of that what you will.

Once the speech was over they gave Merkel a private showing of historic Acts of parliament highlighting Anglo-German cooperation, including the Act for the Naturalisation of his Serene Highness Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg and Gotha from 1840. It all felt a little strained and desperate. British culture is too used to defining itself against Germany to have many examples of bloodless shared history to hand.


The olive branch was not reciprocated. Merkel came out fighting in a surprisingly aggressive and unapologetic speech.

"I have been told many times during the last few days that there are very special expectations of my speech here today," she started. "Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture that will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I am afraid they are in for a disappointment."

She tried to balance this comment out. On the other hand, she pledged, she was not here to rubbish or dismiss British concerns about the EU. But she engaged far less in this endeavour than the other.

It was ultimately a quite bad-tempered speech. She said she felt as if she was "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea," and added: "It is not a pleasant position to be in". That set the tone.

Perhaps it was the sight of the audience in front of her. With the Lords and the Commons stuffed into one room, the gender imbalance becomes impossible to ignore. It's difficult to remember any moment in which one is locked in a room with so many men. It is like an unusually morose gay club. The heads present are universally grey or bald. There is not a strand of coloured hair in sight.

Merkel could have offered a unique take on the strange, violent relationship between Britain and Germany, two nations which are much more similar to one another than they care to admit but have been at least partially defined by their contests. This was a dashed hope. She looked as if she had given the subject very little thought.

Instead, she made a pedestrian case for the EU. It lacked any of the emotional wallop or logical ingenuity necessary to shake Westminster out of its eurosceptic assumptions. Strip out the German bits and it could have come word-for-word from the mouth of Nick Clegg.

Some of those German bits held value. She described the German commitment to the EU as a repercussion of World War Two and the nation's gratitude for the continent's forgiveness.

Another section on the war, in which she observed that the UK "has no need to furnish proof of its commitment to Europe and its basic values" was also touching and effective enough to make me pay renewed attention, until I realised she was quoting someone.

She offered three quotes in total. They were the highlights of the speech.

The rest of the time, she issued a cut-and-paste EU defence. She made the oft-repeated but non-falsifiable claim that the EU prevented war. She described the project as a commitment to the European values of "responsibility and solidarity".

Her case was predominantly right-wing. It was, to all intents and purposes, David Cameron's 'global race' agenda in EU clothes. She railed against regulation. She praised the "fiscal consolidation" requirements imposed on poorer nations over the last few years. She celebrated Anglo-German lobbying for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the US, which will give corporations substantial powers over national governments.

In the most telling sign of how little time she has for euroscepticism, she warned that "a standstill can turn into a setback". She backed it up with a Churchill quote – the coating to get that bitter pill down a British audience's throat – but the point was clear.

She defended freedom of movement as a fundamental aspect of the European project, although she did call for the EU to "muster the courage to point out mistakes and tackle them". Her only other concession – rather a big one actually – was that the principle of subsidiary should be more respected.

But ultimately this was not a big speech, the kind which might live up to the times it was made in. She is a bureaucrat - the very sort eurosceptics mock.

She had little to offer here which the audience would not have heard – and dismissed – before. All it really offered was a glimpse into how badly Cameron has kneecapped himself by putting his political fortunes in the hands of European leaders who have good reason to intrinsically distrust him. After all, if this is what he gets from a personal friend given the full red carpet treatment, God knows what the ones he ignores are like.

After Merkel sat down the Lord Speaker offered a short speech in which she reminded us that the special relationship between the British isles and Germany actually began with the Anglo-Saxons. It was a useful thing to remember: They are us.

There is a story to be told of the relationship between Britain and Germany - of the narcissism of petty differences and how they might be overcome - which might potentially make a unique case for British commitment to the EU.

This wasn't it. If anything, the mundane nature of her thoughts serves to further confirm the staleness of the European project.

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