Merkel heads to London ahead of critical UK election | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 07.01.2015
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Merkel heads to London ahead of critical UK election

Chancellor Merkel will be in London Wednesday to meet with her counterpart David Cameron. With closed-door talks planned, DW takes a look at how the two governments are dealing with the contentious issue of immigration.

The German chancellor's first trip abroad in 2015 takes her to the United Kingdom, visiting a leader who has repeatedly voiced - in varying degrees of earnestness - the possibility of leaving the European Union.

According to a chancellery statement, Merkel's objectives in London won't focus specifically on Prime Minister David Cameron's warnings. But it would be naive to assume the two won't broach the prospect of what's become known as a "Brexit," or the principal issue surrounding it, during their closed-door talks at 10 Downing St.

That issue concerns Cameron's pledge to British voters - ahead of a general election in May - to limit immigration in the UK in a way that threatens to infringe on the free movement of citizens, a right the EU guarantees to all member states.

Nicolai von Ondarza, deputy head of the EU/Europe research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW there was broad agreement in Germany that if the UK were to leave, it would be a disaster for the European Union. "With that said, however, Berlin is not prepared to keep the UK in at all costs," he added.

PEGIDA-Demonstration in Dresden

German cities, primarily Dresden in Saxony, has been hit with a wave of xenophobia

A thin red line

Ahead of Merkel's arrival, Cameron had sharp words of his own regarding his plans for immigration reform. Speaking both to the BBC and the Sunday edition of the Daily Mail, the prime minister warned he wouldn't "rule anything out" if Berlin or Brussels stood in the way of "what needs to be done."

In Cameron's own words, what needs to be done is to limit the entry of new immigrants to the UK to "less than 100,000 per year." That was a promise he made during his election campaign in 2010, and something he had initially hoped to do by simply imposing caps on immigration. There was a problem with those intentions, however; they directly contravene EU laws, namely Article 45 of the Lisbon Treaty. A reminder of that has since come from the former head of the EU, Jose Barroso, the current head of the EU, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Merkel.

In response, Cameron went back to the drawing board. In November, he announced new plans for immigration reform, leaving out any talk of numerical caps on new entries, but including limitations on the extent to which immigrants can receive social welfare benefits.

"I will insist that, in the future, [new immigrants] who want to claim tax credits, welfare payments and child benefits must live here for a minimum of four years," Cameron said, explicitly acknowledging that the proposal would require alterations to EU treaties, yet confident that he would be able to "get that done."

DW Brussels correspondent Bernd Riegert said it won't be as easy as Cameron made it seem to convince Brussels and his European partners to agree to the reform proposals. "It will be extremely difficult to make changes to European law regarding the free movement of peoples," he said. "Brussels will in no way be eager to make changes to existing policy, but it will await concrete proposals from London before any decisions are made."

Aufkleber der englischen Partei UKIP

Much of the pressure heaped on Cameron has come from the populist party UKIP

Differing responses

Much of the pressure on Cameron to stem immigration, as well as his intention to put Britain's EU future to a popular vote by 2017, comes from the overtly euroskeptic, right-leaning United Kingdom Independence Party, which has made rapid advances on the British electoral scene.

As European elections this past May proved, British voters have proved more willing to side with a party to the right of the Tories - if that party is willing to stand strong on the issue of immigration.

Merkel's visit to London comes amid a groundswell of xenophobia at home, in the form of weekly marches in major cities staged by the movement known as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA). It also comes amid the rise of another populist right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has entered parliament in a number of Germany's federal states. Only months after its inception, the AfD nearly cleared the five percent hurdle to enter federal parliament in the 2013 general election.

Despite its electoral successes, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has largely ignored the AfD and its intentions. In addition, the chancellor explicitly rebuked the PEGIDA movement in her New Year's address, warning Germans of the "hatred in the hearts" of such protesters.

It goes without saying that UKIP exerts a larger influence on Cameron's Tories than the AfD and PEGIDA do on Merkel's CDU, yet the widely differing ways in which the leaders have responded remains noteworthy, said von Ondarza.

"So far, Merkel's strategy has been exactly the opposite of Cameron's," he told DW. "We can say she has been more successful than her British counterpart, but we will certainly have to see how the debate develops both in the UK and Germany."

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