UK defiant after German warning on EU migration
National interest comes first, says chancellor George Osborne after ‘Der Spiegel’ story
Different directions? Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel with British prime minister David Cameron at the Nato summit in Wales in September. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid /Getty Images
Britain has insisted it will put national interest first when addressing social pressures caused by migration, shrugging off an apparent German warning not to undermine EU freedom of movement provisions.
Germany’s Der Spiegel quoted an unnamed government source in Berlin at the weekend as warning Britain not to paint itself into a corner on migration.
German officials said today they had no interest in a bilateral row with London on migration, but said they would not allow the EU principle of free movement to become a political football, either.
“David Cameron and the Conservative party always put Britain’s national interest first and we will do what’s in the interest of this country and the interest of this country’s economy,” said British chancellor George Osborne in response to the Spiegel report, which reiterated German concerns over Britain’s debate on migration caps.
Following the last European Council meeting, chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany “would not touch the principle of freedom of movement inside the EU”. Berlin’s hopes that, with that, Cameron would ease up on the issue were disappointed.
Migration limitDer Spiegel
Asked today about the report, Merkel’s spokesman said Berlin was anxious to support British efforts to crack down on so-called benefit tourism, but not at any price. “The higher principle of freedom of movement in general should not be meddled with,” said Steffen Seibert, government spokesman.
“Germany wishes for an active and engaged Britain within the EU . . . It is up to Britain to work out what role it wants to play in future in the European Union. ”
Seibert said this was not a bilateral matter between Germany and Britain but “between Britain and all of its European partners”.
The remarks in Der Spiegel electrified the British political and media landscape today. Osborne played down the article, saying it was based on “what Angela Merkel might have said about something that David Cameron might say in the future”.
“I think it’s a little bit thin,” he said. “We have had good discussions with the Germans . . . They understand the disquiet that is caused amongst British people when you have people from other parts of Europe here to claim our benefits who don’t necessarily have jobs to go to.”
Nonetheless, Osborne said that Cameron would continue his campaign to address “how freedom of movement operates in the 21st century”.
London mayor Boris Johnson said it was “unthinkable” that Germany would give up on Britain in the EU as an ally and counterweight to the southern European bloc.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage, clearly delighted by the flap, said it exposed a lack of substance in the prime minister’s promise to negotiate a new deal with the EU.
Before the Der Spiegel quotes appeared, the Sunday Times said Britain was prepared to make its migration limits “German-friendly”, while exhausting existing EU provisions “to the limit”. This would include exercising the right to send home people unable to finance themselves after three months.
German sources dismissed both Der Spiegel’s report and the British reaction as overblown today, saying Berlin’s position on migration was consistent and that it was not interested in drawing red lines on migration in public.
German officials are conscious of the political pressure Cameron is facing, but complain – whether on migration, the €2 billion payment row with Brussels or Britain’s demands for a new EU deal generally – his actions make him increasingly difficult to help.
Germany had its own debate on so-called welfare tourism earlier this year, forced on to the agenda by Merkel’s more populist Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU). To defuse the emotive debate, a government working group was appointed to examine a phenomenon the federal labour ministry said they had not documented.
In the end, largely to save face in the CSU, a final report presented limited proposals – measures the authors insisted could only take place “on the basis of existing European law”. Der Spiegel’s article, headlined “Red Lines, Flushed Face”, suggested that, in the EU, “Cameron is a man on the run”.