7 Jan 2015

Merkel, museums and hyperventilating

There had been concern in Whitehall that the British Museum “Memories of a Nation” exhibition Angela Merkel visited today might struggle to keep her interested for the whole 60 minutes set aside in the German chancellor’s schedule.

Maybe that tells you something about the speed-scanning, Whitehall high-flier types who were looking over her programme. Maybe it tells you even more about the assiduous and highly qualified scientific brain that has run Germany since 2005.

Chancellor Merkel was shown round the exhibition by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. Shown a video of the day the Berlin Wall came down she told David Cameron and Mr MacGregor that she walked through that very gap in the wall 30 minutes after the footage was filmed.

The Downing Street meeting now under way was requested by the German chancellor to kick off her preparations for the G7 summit she hosts in June. She also wanted to check lines with David Cameron ahead of her meeting with President Putin next week. France and Italy are talking of weakening the sanctions against Russia. Germany is minded to keep the pressure on and sees Britain as an ally. But the German Chancellor could come asking for Britain to consider further financial sanctions that could cost the City and the hard-pressed Treasury.

Both want to talk about the state of health of the eurozone. Elements of the German leadership seem to be trying to pile some pressure on the Greeks not to vote against the austerity programme, though the chancellor’s office has denied that it had anything to do with briefings suggesting it was now more relaxed about Greece leaving the eurozone.

Then, only then, do you get to any sort of chat about David Cameron’s planned renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. In a 40 minute bilateral after a 15 minute drive back to Downing Street from the museum, followed by a working dinner, you’d think the subject must come up. But the detail may well not be deep.

Germany will not have been particularly impressed by David Cameron toughening up his language (on Andrew Marr last weekend) on how his EU immigration/welfare changes must require treaty change. Germany has been asking for treaty change to harden eurozone rules for some time but doesn’t have allies to do it. It sees no immediate sign of that changing. One Tory minister told me he thought David Cameron was simply trying to “sound tough” and make his own demands sound as substantial as possible.

This will not be a decisive moment in the David Cameron renegotiation strategy. And his critics would say the prime minister has a pretty good track record at misreading the German chancellor – not least over the fiscal compact and the President Juncker appointment.

There could be a remark that opens a possibility of concessions to Mr Cameron’s position but a UK source in Brussels advised: “People should stop hyperventilating” and lower their expectations a bit.

Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter

Tweets by @garygibbonc4