Angela Merkel and David Cameron didn’t get off to the greatest of starts: one of his earliest decisions as party leader was to pull Conservative MEPs out of Merkel’s party’s group in the European parliament. But their relationship seems to have improved markedly since he became prime minister, so much so that the German chancellor’s trip to the UK is being treated, especially by those Conservatives who hope the EU can be reformed rather than abandoned, as the visit of an ally and not an enemy.
Wishful thinking, warn some of Cameron’s more candid friends, as well as his dedicated band of Europhobe detractors. Merkel may be the most powerful person in Europe, but that doesn’t mean she can perform miracles. She also leads a country that, like any other, will ultimately act in what it perceives to be its national interests. For most Germans, this means preserving a political economic union that has helped deliver peace, prosperity and democracy. Besides, Cameron mustn’t forget that she governs alongside the centre-left SPD, and they make our own Labour party look like a bunch of wild-eyed sceptics.
Put bluntly, then, the argument is that while Merkel may well agree with a lot of what Cameron would like to do to the EU, she is constrained by country and coalition: she would if she could, but she can’t. What all this forgets, however, is that there is another equally important reason why Germany’s chancellor won’t ride to the rescue of Britain’s PM: ideology.
It is all too easy to think that just because Merkel and Cameron head up centre-right parties, those parties think pretty much alike. But if that were the case, then why, for instance, did so many Tory MEPs feel so uncomfortable in the Merkel-allied European People’s party-European Democrats grouping? It wasn’t just about differences on EU integration; it was because they were Conservatives in an alliance dominated by Christian Democrats. Cameron’s Conservatism and Merkel’s Christian Democracy represent related but in the end fundamentally different world views.
For the contemporary Conservative everything begins with the individual, whereas for the Christian Democrat, people are profoundly embedded in the collective – most obviously in associations and interest groups including (whisper it softly) trade unions. The job of the state, for Christian Democrats, is actively to bring together, reconcile, regulate and harmonise the needs and demands of the so-called “social partners” in more or less corporatist fashion. Not for them the stripped-down, hollowed-out affair which is the aim of all-too-many contemporary Conservatives. Nor for them the excessive centralisation which, for example, prevents local government raising and spending most of its own money, or sees schools run direct from Whitehall. Or, indeed, the social exclusion that comes with poverty wages, lack of youth training, and a welfare system run on the cheap by the state for the supposedly deserving poor rather than by stakeholders for everyone.
Christian Democracy – the clue is in the name, as well as in the insistence of those who profess it, that they are a centre rather than a rightwing party. Yes, they embrace private property and the market. But with affluence comes responsibility: the market is still the social market, and there is more to life than materialism.
And there is also a limit to the demonisation of outsiders. Of course immigration should be controlled – and successive Christian Democratic governments can hardly be held up as shining examples when it comes to the treatment of Germany’s Turkish (and therefore predominantly Muslim) population. But there remains at the heart of their worldview the desire “to turn strangers into friends”, to treat those fleeing poverty and oppression with Christian charity and compassion. Likewise, Christian Democracy is an inherently transnational rather than nationalist creed. For its adherents the EU is not simply a marriage of convenience but a statement of faith – the embodiment of the ideal, harmonious, federal polity writ large.
One can of course argue that there has been a degree of convergence in recent years. Some of the talk from Conservatives about the “big society” sounded pretty Christian Democratic. And for their part, Christian Democrats have moved towards a more liberal conception of the market and been obliged to come to terms with aspects of the secular, permissive society that many – though clearly not all – Conservatives were much quicker to embrace.
But there are limits, and they will only become more and more obvious as Cameron embarks on his mission to change Europe or else leave it. He and Merkel may not be chalk and cheese, but they’ll never be birds of a feather.