The Sun published a story with the rather far-fetched title “Germany’s kingmaker who is set to prop up Merkel says Britain CAN slash migration while keeping EU trade” earlier today.
So who’s this supposed kingmaker I wondered, and what has he said?
Turns out it is the FDP’s Christian Lindner. And he might end up positioning the FDP as the CDU’s junior coalition partner after the September elections, although it’s far from certain. But let’s give The Sun that one for now.
The Sun bases its article on an interview Lindner did with Politico in German – the full text of that can be found here.
But what does The Sun article say?
“BRITAIN can slash immigration even if we stay in the single market, according to an influential German politician” the article goes on. “Mr Lindner suggested that Britain could remain in the single market as long as it accepted free movement of labour – instead of the free movement of all people. That would mean only EU citizens with jobs in the UK could settle here, and they could not claim any benefits from the state.”
The problem with this is that it’s a mixture of ambiguity and outright fabrication.
First, the EU Treaties already state free movement of labour and not free movement of people. There are rules restricting benefits of those who move – anyone moving to another EU country needs to be able to support themselves. Summary of how it works here. The problem is that the UK does not have a system to really put those rules into force. Plus the distinction between work and benefits is nowhere as clear as The Sun makes out – some benefits are paid to those in work, while others accrue after a number of years in a job. Lindner also says “Fear of immigration into social systems is unfounded” (my translation from the German – full translation below) – but unsurprisingly those words are nowhere to be found in The Sun’s piece. Lindner also adds “there should be no cutbacks to the basic freedoms of the internal market” – i.e. the opposite of the cherry picking The Sun implies he is offering to the UK.
Second, what Lindner says about needing to try to strike a deal with the UK is hardly anything surprising. All options need to be on the table he says – customs union, free trade zone, internal market access. This is obvious. No-one on the EU side has removed any of that from the table anyway – if anyone has it is the UK government! Yes, Lindner makes it clear that it would be counterproductive to make a (negative) example of the UK, and his vocabulary is somewhat softer than that used by some EU-27 politicians, but in substance there is little new here.
Third, the original interview is in Politico in German. Lindner’s comments on Brexit were not even judged to be significant enough to make it to the headline of the piece, and Politico is never a publication to shy away from a bit of clickbait. The English article based on the German interview equally pays little attention to the Brexit issue.
Basically The Sun is twisting Lindner’s words to suit their agenda. It is not the first time they do that to a German politician, and nor will it be the last I suspect.
Anyway, for the avoidance of doubt about this, and knowing that few UK journalists speak German, here I have translated the full text of what Lindner says about Brexit (the final part of his Politico interview) – any errors with this are my responsibility:
How do you assess the position of the German Federal Government on Brexit?
There are contradictory statements. At the start I felt that a scary example should be set made of Great Britain. That was the wrong strategy. Europe and Germany are not going to do better if the British are weakened – quite the opposite. We have an interest in a strong and economically prosperous UK.
The goal must be to settle a fair deal with the British. Customs union, free trade zone, internal market access – all options must be on the table. However, there should be no cutbacks to the basic freedoms of the internal market. If the British have problems with freedom of movement within Europe, they may be persuaded to recall that it is only a matter of free movement of workers. Fear of immigration into social systems is unfounded. If necessary, the EU needs to clarify its law in this regard, which would be in the interest of all EU member states.
The consequences are underestimated here. There is generally a deceptive sense of economic invincibility in Germany. This is perhaps the greatest danger in the coming years. We are on a historically high plateau in Germany, but the end is foreseeable, probably at the end of this decade.
But I also believe there has been a turn to realism in the Brexit negotiations.