Germany's sorrow at British 'isolation' in Europe

Copies of Newsweek magazine at a train station in Berlin, Germany, on 13 December 2011
Image caption Many Germans - but not all - believe Angela Merkel showed great leadership in Brussels

Seasoned political commentators often warn that you can't judge who has really got the best of a deal in the heated aftermath of difficult negotiations.

Winners turn to losers. Time undoes intentions. Details emerge that wipe out the good that seemed to have been done.

Will it be the same with the grand summit of European Union leaders in Brussels that produced the agreement-minus-one?

Since then, the German newspapers have been full of the triumph of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the demise of Britain. Television channels are running strap-lines reading "Britain against Europe".

As the mass-circulation Bild put it under the headline in English "Bye-bye, England": "Dear Britain. Europe without you is like fish without chips, like London without driving on the left, like Pils without froth."

And then the sting in the tail: "Do you really want to be a lonely island? If so, then be honest - and get completely out of the EU."

But the tone was one of sorrow rather than scorn. And also some humour; with a gentle ribbing about the alleged British habit of taking German towels off sun-loungers in holiday resorts, plus regret that England did not make it to Euro 2008 football championships in Austria and Switzerland ("We were sad that you weren't there").

Sorrow is the general tone taken at what Germans see as a barely comprehensible decision to seek isolation.

The up-market magazine Spiegel has a picture of British Prime Minister David Cameron with the caption "Into the rowing boat".

The word "isoliert" (isolated) crops up everywhere. Tuesday's Tagespiegel has the British prime minister on the front page with the caption: "And now Mr Cameron? Great Britain has isolated itself with its veto on the treaty changes."

Odd one out?

The tone is echoed among politicians. From the heart of the governing party, the message is that Britain "should not stay isolated".

Peter Altmaier, one of Chancellor Merkel's inner circle and chief whip of her CDU party in the Bundestag, told the BBC: "We are looking forward very much to seeing Britain leading in Europe instead of staying isolated."

"Over the last years there has been very intensive co-operation between the UK and Germany, and I'm deeply convinced that this will continue," he said.

"We have so much in common and there are so few issues that divide us, so I really hope that after this summit that we can concentrate on the European core business again. And I see no reason why Britain should be isolated."

The universal view in Germany is that Chancellor Merkel has risen in stature. She is now presented as one of the true global leaders.

The cover of Spiegel, for example, depicts what it sees as the four world leaders: Chancellor Merkel, US President Barack Obama, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao - albeit presented as puppets with their strings manipulated by the "Global Stock Exchange".

David Cameron is not there.

And inside, the paper gives a bleak assessment - for Britain - of how the summit has reshaped the European Union: "The core of the new union consists of the 17 eurozone governments, which have even agreed to meet once a month for the time being.

"Around this core is a ring of up to nine countries, which intend to introduce the euro in the long term and, to the extent that their parliaments permit them to do so, will also sign up to the eurozone's stricter budgetary rules.

"The rest, led by Great Britain, are condemned to third-class status."

Unpleasant medicine

The common perception among the commentating class is that Mrs Merkel has played a blinder.

She has been tough in defending Germany's interests, but also in insisting on unpleasant medicine for the sick economies in the eurozone.

There was an easy option, the common view is, and that involved Germany paying the bills - but she resisted it with her tough love.

If you look very hard, you can find an alternative view that the German approach has been wrong-headed.

The deal, under this view, will fail to do the trick - and when the pain comes it will be all the greater because of Chancellor Merkel's failure to do what had to be done sooner.

Germany has a Council of Economic Experts that advises the government. One of them, Peter Bofinger, is unhappy with the chancellor's course.

He told the BBC he loses sleep over it: "It's really difficult to understand the position of Mrs Merkel."

He thinks she has not been bold enough with the German people - who elected her - by telling them that Germany would have to show solidarity with the rest of Europe and guarantee more financial commitment.

"I think she is not courageous enough," he said.

"It is difficult to convince the average German that this solidarity is needed. It needs courage to say this, and if this courage is not there in a sufficient amount, then we can explain the short term solutions that were taken."

If he is right and the majority of commentators are wrong, the grand deal made in Brussels will turn out to have looked better on the podium of the conference centre than it does in the real and brutal world of the financial markets.

If the deal fails to convince the markets, it may be Chancellor Merkel who ends up in the rowing boat rather than David Cameron.

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