Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?

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Angela Merkel was reported on Monday 3 November as saying that if David Cameron insisted on ideas such as quotas for EU migrants then this could push Britain beyond a point of no return and towards the exit door. Granted we’re not talking about huge numbers of people, but those that do closely follow EU politics would not be surprised by Merkel’s view. Why would any British government imagine that the German government would be an ally in dismantling one of the EU’s defining features? But scratch the surface and the even more startling thing is that Britain and Germany could be allies on free movement. By raising the stakes and talking about controls and quotas, the British government seems to have alienated its potential ally in Berlin.

While not threatened in anything like the same way as the Conservative Party by Eurosceptic insurgents, German governments have been far from relaxed about free movement and have tried to do something about it. Back in the 1990s, the Germans sought controls on EU ‘posted workers’ in the building industry (think Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) and were strict in imposing controls on migrants from new member states after 2004.

The 2013 coalition agreement (p.73) between the Christian and Social Democrats stated that ‘unjustified claims of social benefits by EU citizens were jeopardizing public acceptance of freedom of movement’ and proposed re-entry bans for welfare dependent EU migrants. A difference with the UK is that such moves were portrayed as a way to save free movement and not end it.

The British and German governments have been allies at EU level too. In summer 2013, Home Secretary Theresa May and her German counterpart Hans Peter Friedrich along with the Austrian and Dutch interior ministers called for action to combat ‘the fraudulent use of the right of free movement’ and the resultant ‘excessive strain on … social systems’. The Commission repeatedly asked for evidence to support such claims, which could be difficult to produce. Studies show the welfare costs of EU- born migrants are less than or equal to those of natives. . In Britain and Germany EU migrants move primarily into the labour market rather than the welfare state. There is little to suggest that welfare systems play much of a role, if any, in the decisions of intra-EU migrants about their destination.

Facts aside, there are similarities in the underlying politics of immigration in both countries. Although not reaching the levels of concern seen in the UK, a 2011 Ipsos Mori poll in Germany found 51 per cent of respondents to favour reintroduction of border controls in the Schengen zone while the 2014 ‘Transatlantic Trends’ survey found 34 per cent of German respondents expressing concern about EU free movement.

They’re certainly not UKIP, but the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has advocated changes to EU free movement rules to combat what it calls ’poverty migration’ and ‘welfare tourism’.

While not going so far as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s claims about ‘swamping’, the General Secretary of Merkel’s CDU party, Peter Tauber said in January 2014 that: ‘we should not keep silent about the fact that there are also people who do not want to work at all or do not want to integrate’.

Three factors explain these similarities. The first is changes in immigrant demography. In 2013, German net immigration was estimated at over 400,000, a level not seen since the early 1990s. As in Britain, albeit with a 7-year lag, once restrictions on EU migrants moving to Germany were lifted after 2011, there was an upturn in movement from other EU member states. Over three quarters of the people migrating to Germany in 2013 were moving within the EEA and largely beyond the control of the German government. Employment rates for nationals for the eight central and east European countries that joined in 2004 increased by 17 per cent in 2011  – 71,000 people – compared to 2010. The numbers of Bulgarians and Romanians doubled – an increase of 83,00 – between 2013 and 2014. By 2014, 1.4 per cent of the German workforce was from the eight central and east European countries that joined the EU in 2004. In Britain, migration from new member states averaged 170,000 a year between 2004 and 2012. The 2011 census showed 2.7 million citizens of other EU member states to be resident in the UK, of these 1.1 million were from countries that joined after May 2004. Third quarter 2013 Labour Force Survey data showed 723,000 people from post-2004 EU member states to be in employment in Britain.

Second, Germany’s self-image as a reluctant immigration country has been radically altered since the early 2000s as Germany has sought highly skilled migrants. As in Britain under New Labour, German policy makers warmed to the idea of migration as a means of strengthening economic competiveness, but based on the idea of selection.

Third, there has been some decline in the ‘European vocation’ of Germany’s political elites and a strengthening of support for Eurosceptic political parties, albeit very different from UKIP. The most prominent is the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which opposes the single currency and has also identified EU migration as a problem. Britain has never really had a European vocation and its Euroscepticism is of a different character, but there is a more moderate strain of scepticism in Europe with which the British government could connect.

A key difference is that, unlike Britain, Germany does actually have a recent history of trying to restrict EU free movement. During membership negotiations for central and east European countries, the German government insisted on its ability for up to 5 years after membership to enforce national legislation governing employment by citizens from new member states instead of instantly applying EU law plus a further two years if there were serious labour market ‘disturbances’ or ‘threats’. Unlike Britain, which allowed immediate access, Germany applied the maximum seven-year restriction on citizens of new member states moving to Germany using their free movement rights.  The result was that much EU migration to Britain was re-routed from the preferred destination of Germany.

Germany is a potential ally for the British government on EU free movement, but will not countenance attacks on the basic principle. Quotas and the like are a non-starter. The German government could agree to welfare restrictions and to curtail the free movement rights for citizens from countries joining the EU in the future. Whether or not this is sufficient for Conservative Eurosceptics will tell us whether Britain is really moving beyond a point of no return.


This blog was first published by the Political Studies Association: