LONDON – Over venison dinner at London's Downing Street, German Chancellor Angela Merkel lobbied one of the European Union's most reluctant members to back a program of integration which would see more powers and more money handed to EU headquarters in Brussels.
Merkel faces a tough sell with British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose ruling Conservative Party has never been particularly enthusiastic about European integration. Cameron is under pressure from a large and vocal group of lawmakers in his own party to stand firm against any attempt to expand the EU's remit or its budget.
Speaking to reporters before the dinner, Cameron said that debt-saddled European nations struggling to recover from the global financial downturn could ill afford to pour more money into Brussels' coffers.
"I believe it would be wrong for the European budget to increase at a time when we are having to make difficult decisions not just in Britain but all over the European Union to get our budgets back to balancing," he said. "That's why I've said it should be at best a cut (in the EU budget), at worst a freeze."
Merkel, speaking through an interpreter, acknowledged that every European leader needed "to do something that will stand up in the court of public opinion back home."
But she declined to say whether she supported Cameron's push for a freeze, saying she wanted to speak to the prime minister about it first.
It could be a strained conversation.
Before her trip to London, Merkel said she wanted the upcoming summit of EU government leaders to come up with a plan to give the bloc more powers to intervene in national budgets. In a speech to legislators in Brussels, she said that she wanted all EU member states to eventually adopt the euro currency and calling for transforming the European Commission — which currently drafts EU legislation — into "something like a European government."
Such talk is anathema to Cameron's and his Conservatives, many of whom believe the EU already has too much power and some of whom are pushing for a referendum on Britain's continued membership in the body.
Such a move would in turn be disturbing for Merkel, who is counting on strengthening links between European countries to get a grip on the enormous debts racked up by countries such as Greece and Spain which threaten the stability of the continent's single currency. In her speech to European legislators Thursday she described the idea of Britain turning its back on Europe as unimaginable.
"I will do everything to keep the U.K. in the EU as a good partner; that is why I am going to London this evening," she said, adding that she would tell the inhabitants of "this wonderful island" that "you can be very happy but you won't be happy if you are alone in this world."
Raf Casert reported from Brussels.