Merkel Allies Betray Growing Alarm `Brexit' Prospect Is Real

  • `Existential risk' to Europe cited by senior German lawmaker
  • Merkel sees `very demanding' road ahead to avoid Brexit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party colleagues expressed growing dismay at the prospect of a British exit from the European Union, with one lawmaker portraying Prime Minister David Cameron’s planned referendum as an “existential risk” for Europe.

As European leaders prepare to discuss Britain’s call for EU reform in four main areas at a summit in Brussels Thursday, Cameron’s approach is raising concern in the Chancellery in Berlin that his demands go too far, according to a German government official. Another worry is that any agreement Cameron might extract from the rest of the 28-nation EU still wouldn’t be enough to sway EU-skeptical British voters, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

“The task of finding a solution is very demanding,” and EU principles such as the free movement of citizens and equal treatment among member countries “aren’t up for debate,” Merkel said in a speech to lower-house lawmakers in Berlin on Wednesday.

Cameron is seeking to win back powers from the EU and obtain greater protection for U.K. interests to present to British voters before the referendum he plans by the end of 2017. In doing so, he may be looking for a clash in Brussels to appeal to his domestic audience amid anti-Europe sentiment in his party and country.

“A head of government should never expose his country or Europe to an existential risk, whatever the threat,” Norbert Roettgen, the head of the German parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, said in an interview on Tuesday. Gunther Krichbaum, another senior lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said Cameron shouldn’t count on changing the EU’s treaties.

‘It’s Tough’

The British government has said Cameron isn’t considering softening his stance on the most contentious area of welfare reform and migration, nor is he looking at different options to take to the summit. “The whole renegotiation is difficult, it’s taking time,” Cameron said this month. “It’s tough what I’m asking for.”

Former U.K. Prime Minister John Major told BBC Radio 4 that flirting with a British exit is “very dangerous and against our country’s interests,” while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told parliament in Rome that Britain can’t expect “veto power” in Europe.

Even as Merkel seeks to help Cameron keep the U.K. in the bloc, other EU leaders are preparing to reject his plans for change and urge him to back down at the summit. They will probably reject his proposal to force EU migrants to the U.K. to wait four years before they qualify for welfare payments, said four diplomats, all from different nations. Several governments are furious about both the substance of his demands and the style of negotiation, which recently included a request to revise the bloc’s underlying treaty, they said, asking not to be named because talks are in progress.

Treaty Changes

Cameron needs to be open and specific about his demands at the EU summit and explain his domestic political reasons, an EU official told reporters Wednesday in Brussels. It’s hard to see how his demand for restricting migrant benefits can be met, said the official, who asked not to be identified in line with EU policy.

Treaty changes, as well as being among the core obstacles to a deal, will be needed to meet Cameron’s demands, a panel of U.K. lawmakers said this week. That’s not on the cards, said Krichbaum, who heads the German lower house’s European affairs committee.

“Nobody is in favor of opening the treaties,” Krichbaum said in an interview. While “we are open for these political talks,” treaty change “will not be possible,” he said.

Bound for Bavaria

After this week’s summit, the prime minister will again meet with Merkel in January at a conference of Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union party. All the same, Germany can only go so far in trying to keep the U.K. in the European Union, Roettgen said.

“Germany can’t help that much because the Britons take the position that they can decide themselves on the interpretation of their interests,” Roettgen said. A British exit would be an “enormous blow” to the EU at a time when the bloc faces the biggest crisis since its inception, and it would trigger another referendum to leave the U.K. in Scotland, he said.

“That means that in the shortest amount of time, the British prime minister will have destroyed the United Kingdom,” Roettgen said. “Just taking on this risk is unjustifiable.”

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