Last Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron had lunch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was a busy lunch, and the absence of detailed minutes have allowed many people to speculate about what was discussed or agreed – including some of the people who were in the room, it seems! Was it a row over the future of Europe, and the possible exclusion of the UK? Or a spat over the Robin Hood Tax, and UK attempts to demand a place at the European table while refusing to pay the price? A desperate attempt by David Cameron, just months after agreeing to observe the eurozone from afar, to claw his way back into the decision-making?
One narrative that has worried many is the suggestion that dribbled out over the weekend that Cameron offered to back Merkel’s proposed amendments to the Lisbon Treaty if she allowed him to restrict the effect of the Working Time Directive and more European employment rights, thus allowing Cameron to buy off his eurosceptic rightwing backbenchers. Here’s why I think that’s unlikely to be the full story.
For a start, the initial suggestion that Merkel had agreed to a review of the Working Time Directive was hardly hold-the-front-page news. The Directive is under almost permanent review by the European Commission, and Germany has on numerous occasions agreed to the UK government’s desire to retain the individual opt-out from the Directive and escape from the judgments of the European Court in the Simap and Jaeger cases. So if that’s what Cameron had achieved in return for backing Merkel over the Lisbon Treaty amendments, it would hardly be a major feat of negotiating!
Indeed, the German Chancellor would be unwise to believe that a deal like that would buy off David Cameron’s eurosceptics.
Whatever more excitable German politicians have been saying about Europe doing what Germany says, Merkel is not actually in a position to grant Cameron what he is supposed to have demanded. Indeed, the social partners (the European Trade Union Confederation and BusinessEurope) have just agreed to enter into social dialogue over the Working Time Directive, and it would be a breach of EU law to legislate over the Directive until that dialogue concludes.
German unions report that the message that they’re getting out of Berlin refutes media reports about a deal. They detect more than a whiff of Government spin. Maybe that’s why neither Angela Merkel nor David Cameron mentioned such a diplomatic triumph in their media conference after the pudding and cheese had been cleared away. Mind you, I wouldn’t trust either of them not to try it on, so stay vigilant!