We have been here before. More than 20 years ago then Prime Minister John Major claimed “game, set and match” over the Maastricht treaty negotiations that first crippled his government then helped to consign it to the worst Tory defeat since 1832.
Major spoke of a Britain at the heart of Europe only to end his days in a farcical “beef war”with Europe that he lost. His Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd loftily spoke of Europe coming our way and boasted that we punched above our weight in the Continent’s chancelleries.
It was all nonsense, of course. Britain was and is no more at the heart of Europe than it is an island in the South Seas. The intervening decades, in which we have continued to exhibit our European schizophrenia (such as signing up to the social chapter and planning to surrender our citizens to the outrageous European arrest warrant, while rejecting the single currency) bear witness to this simple truth.
But muddling through dies hard. We now have a new friend in Europe and on Thursday she is coming to this wet and windswept island in the North Sea, which has yet to get used to the idea that it rains in the winter.
Francois Hollande got a pub lunch. Angela Merkel will get to take the red carpet home to Berlin.
The latest thinking from No 10 (if that is not too strong a word) is that Merkel backs David Cameron’s fuzzy notions about a new deal between Britain and the EU. She is said to share his concerns about unrestricted movement of workers across the Union, especially if these so-called workers are really indulging in a spot of benefit tourism. She is also said to be appalled by the idea of an EU without the UK and will make any number of concessions to ensure that we never relinquish its stifling embrace.
Another interpretation, prominent in yesterday’s Financial Times, is that Germany is chiefly concerned with deepening integration within the eurozone, while being wary of opening the Pandora’s Box of revising the treaties that keep the rackety show on the road. It does not want Britain to quit but it shows precious little sign of bowing to Cameron’s demands, not least because it is not quite sure what he wants in the first place.
Mrs Merkel will be feted like an empress this week, taking tea with the Queen and addressing both Houses of Parliament (hecklers please note), the first German leader to do so in nearly 30 years.
But nothing substantial will change.
True, Dave’s rhetoric is less airy than the fantasies of the Major administration, but there is precious little sign of any clarity about his objectives, let alone red lines. His negotiating position, in advance of his putative referendum in 2017, is limp since he has already said he will recommend staying in whatever the result.
The Prime Minister is trying to busk his way past a significant mantrap – the European elections on May 22. He hopes that some robust words about curbing immigration will buy off the mounting pressures on his backbenches for a change of course and a clear-sighted vision of Britain’s European destiny.
Some chummy pictures with Mrs Merkel plus some diplomatic niceties on her part might just buy him a little more time. His spinners will be working overtime to make sure the BBC carries the right footage.
The reality is Conservative European policy is on hold. Only after the votes are counted in less than three months and the scale of Nigel Farage’s insurgency can be calculated can we (and ministers) begin to figure out what our Government is up to.