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16 November 2016

Angela Merkel revives soft Brexit hopes on free movement – but what did she actually say?

The German Chancellor also said there should be no wobbling on the principle. 

By Julia Rampen

For Remainers and those hoping for a soft Brexit, the past few months have been bleak. 

The main trade off in Brexit negotiations looks set to be controls on immigration, versus access to the single market. But while governments have usually prioritised the economy, the new Prime Minister took a hard line on immigration. The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, a protectionist who railed against immigrants, seemed to confirm this direction of travel. 

So when Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and the most influential politician in Europe, suggested there could be discussions about the framework of free movement, it made headlines.

Economic liberals and defenders of immigration hope that a willingness to negotiate on freedom of movement could pave the way for an EU-lite deal, where the status quo is maintained with a few extra controls on sensitive areas of the workforce. Merkel’s comments will certainly stoke hopes for her meeting with the outgoing US President, Barack Obama, and Theresa May on Friday. 

Meanwhile, Brexiteers who argued Europe would cave into Britain’s demands are cheering that they were right all along. 

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But what did Merkel actually say? 

First, it’s important to note she is against any kind of exception for Britain. In her speech to the German employers’ association, BDA, she said specifically that doing so would “endanger principles of the whole internal market of the European Union” because then everyone would want exceptions.

And unlike Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who says the idea that freedom of movement is fundamental to the EU is “b*llocks”, Merkel stressed that “we cannot wobble” on the basic principle of free movement. 

In other words, any fundamental changes must apply to the whole of the EU, or not at all. But there might be a little room for interpretation. 

So what could that be? Merkel said she thought there should be more discussion of the finer detail of freedom of movement. For example, she questioned the idea that a migrant from another EU country could claim benefits if they had only worked in the host country for a short time.

In short, Merkel is paving the way for another deal on benefits, the kind struck by David Cameron before the EU referendum, where migrants’ access to child benefit was limited. As the result of the referendum showed, this was not enough to impress Leave supporters first time round. But advocates of a soft Brexit must hope that, in the cold light of day, they are willing to listen.