German chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments on freedom of movement while addressing the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA) on Tuesday, have been misreported by the Telegraph. The newspaper said Merkel could compromise on free movement, despite European leaders being united in asserting that Britain cannot have restrictions on EU migration and single market access. Indeed this was reiterated by Merkel on Tuesday.
The Telegraph seized on a highly conditional sentence in Merkel’s speech to indicate that she was discussing a far reaching policy shift when the whole speech made clear she was discussing a specific and narrow aspect of the conditions relating to free movement.
“I personally am of the view that we will have to discuss further with the Commission when this freedom of movement applies from”, she had said. In response, the Telegraph suggested that “Britain may be able to gain full control of its borders while still retaining access to the single market”.
The publication went on to quote “Brexit supporting MPs”, who declared it “the beginning of a new realism in the EU”. Whitehall sources allegedly told the Telegraph it was “the first crack in the armour”.
This interpretation is misleading.
Merkel said explicitly that any exception for freedom of movement for the UK, “would endanger the principles of the EU’s single market”. It is clear that she was underlining that there will be no movement on this principle.
In fact the German chancellor was specifically addressing the much narrower issue of so-called “benefit tourism” within the EU, whereby Europeans migrate to another EU country in order to claim social security, with no intention of working, or secure long term social security benefits as a result of a short period of working in a country which continue even when they return home.
“If somebody from Eastern Europe comes to Germany under the principles of freedom of movement, and is only in work for a short period of time, but has a lifetime claim to social benefits, then I see therein a question about which we must speak again”, said Merkel.
The issue became salient following a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice in November 2014, which said that Germany was right to deny an unemployed Romanian woman a particular allowance because she showed no intent to seek employment. Indeed former prime minister David Cameron fought for restrictions on benefit tourism in his special deal with the EU before the referendum.
Merkel was identifying the need for further discussion on this issue, not suggesting that Britain could have its cake and eat it. The comments followed foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s interview to Czech newspaper Hospodářské Noviny, during which he dismissed the idea that free movement of people is a founding EU principle as “bollocks”.
InFacts contacted the Telegraph for comment but received no response.
Edited by Stewart Fleming