Inept handling of Merkel visit offers Nigel Farage a field day
Merkel offers little hope of EU reform while figures show immigration up: not Cameron's finest hour
THE COMBINATION of Angela Merkel's downbeat speech to Parliament and the release of the latest immigration figures has handed a gift to Ukip for its Spring Conference in Torquay today. Nigel Farage would be skipping on the sands if the weather wasn't so awful.
The German Chancellor's refusal to concede more to David Cameron’s demands for EU reform has led to right-wing eurosceptics saying there's now no reason to delay the in-out referendum until 2017: Cameron is clearly not going to get anywhere in the EU negotiations, so why wait?
As for yesterday's immigration figures, they showed that Cameron missed his much lauded promise to bring net immigration down to 100,000 by a mile – the number actually went up in 2013 by 60,000 to 212,000. Worse, the increase was driven by a 40 per cent increase in unchecked immigration from the EU.
Lib Dem Vince Cable has infuriated Daily Mail-reading eurosceptics this morning by welcoming the figures because they show that Britain is booming. "Actually, those figures are good news," said the Business Secretary, "because the reason net immigration is going up is because fewer British people are emigrating and surely that’s a good thing – people are getting jobs here."
Needless to say, that is not going to impress Cameron's eurosceptic backbenchers: it just makes them more determined than ever to get Britain out of the EU.
As does Merkel's very clear message that, apart from a few tweaks here and there, Cameron has little chance of renegotiating the fundamental terms of Britain's relationship with Brussels.
Which begs the question – why did Dave bother to invite Angela?
The way he rolled out the red carpet – the rare honour of addressing both Houses of Parliament followed by lunch at Downing Street and tea with the Queen – was in marked contrast to the pub lunch that was given to Francois Hollande of France. All very amusing for anti-socialist Francophobes in the Tory Party, but in the end it is Hollande that David Cameron needs to win over, just as much as the German Chancellor.
The fact is the Merkel trip was badly handled by Number Ten, which briefed eurosceptic papers such as the Daily Telegraph that Merkel was coming with a gift for Dave of major concessions, that they were almost reading from the same script when it came to EU structural reform, including Britain’s concerns about free movement of immigrants to Britain from Europe.
Such hopes were immediately dashed by Merkel. “Some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I am afraid they are in for a disappointment,” she said.
All she would offer was limited reform, saying: "I believe we need to adapt the legal foundations of the monetary union in a limited, targeted and speedy way to stabilise the union for the long term."
She also indicated that there might be something that can be done about benefit tourism. But as for the right of EU citizens to come here to find work, as Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph blogged overnight: "You can bet your lederhosen that not just Mrs Merkel, but none of the other EU member states, will countenance a watering-down of that principle."
In the Financial Times, political commentator Philip Stephens writes: "One senior German official has been heard to remark – only a little unkindly – that she [Merkel] has two European missions: the first to rescue the euro, and the second to save Mr Cameron from his own political miscalculation."
Cameron, says Stephens, "had hoped – naively – that the promise of a second referendum would turn the tide of Tory Europhobia. The reverse has been true. Many sceptics demand changes in the terms of the relationship that they know well can be achieved only through departure."
While Dave and Angela managed an awkward kiss, more and more members of his own party are being driven into the arms of Ukip. Some senior Tories meanwhile worry - is their leader naïve, as Stephens suggests, or inept?