Germany Defends EU Rights as Cable Says Merkel Perplexed

The German government said freedom of movement in the European Union wasn’t open to negotiation, as U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable warned against moves in Britain to pick apart one of the EU’s key principles.

The comments in Berlin today by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, signaled no retreat in the spat with Prime Minister David Cameron’s government over his attempts to curb free movement within the bloc. Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reported yesterday that Merkel had expressed concerns for the first time Britain might quit the 28-nation EU amid Cameron’s push for ways to limit immigration to Britain.

Freedom of movement in the EU “is non-negotiable, that’s what the chancellor said,” Seibert told a regular government press conference. “She also said that there’s a strong mutual interest to work together to tackle problems of the abuse of free movement. Those are two different things.”

Cable, in the first public comments by a U.K. cabinet minister following the weekend report, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in London today that Merkel and other European leaders “simply can’t understand why the British are reopening this debate” about the single market. “It’s dangerous to do so,” he said.

The U.K. government said that Cameron’s push for reform was “about realizing that free movement should not be an unqualified right.” Even so, the prime minister has yet to set out proposals for reform and “no decisions have been taken,” his spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters in London today.

UKIP Challenge

With six months before the next U.K. general election, Cameron is hardening his rhetoric on the EU in a bid to lure back voters from the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, which campaigns for an exit from the bloc. Polls suggest Cameron’s Conservatives will lose a second parliamentary seat to UKIP in a special election on Nov. 20.

Merkel is concerned by Cameron’s efforts to reduce the free flow of workers from the other 27 EU member states into Britain and told him in a private conversation last month that he would reach a “point of no return” if he continued with his efforts to introduce quotas, Spiegel said.

“The increasingly toxic nature of the debate on immigration is making this more difficult,” said Cable, a lawmaker with Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partner.

“David Cameron is both losing influence and losing allies in Europe,” the opposition Labour Party’s foreign-affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, said in an e-mailed statement. “His weakness within his own party means he now risks pushing Britain towards exit from Europe altogether.”

Conservative Pressure

Cameron is facing increasing pressure from Conservative lawmakers, who have not been appeased by his promise to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017 if he wins the May 7 national election.

Two Conservative lawmakers have defected to UKIP in the past three months. One, Douglas Carswell, won re-election on a UKIP ticket in his Clacton district. The second, Mark Reckless, has the backing of nearly half the electorate in his Rochester constituency, where he’s bidding to emulate Carswell in this month’s special election, according to a poll last week.

With polls showing immigration as U.K. voters’ greatest concern, Tory ministers intensified their rhetoric on the issue last week. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon talked of “whole towns and communities being swamped by huge numbers of migrant workers.”

Taken Seriously

“There needs to be a change in the so-called free-movement rules,” Conservative lawmaker David Davis told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. “If you want to get the Europeans to take you seriously, you have to hold out the possibility of you leaving.”

A YouGov Plc survey published yesterday showed the Tories trailing the opposition Labour Party by 31 percent to 32 percent in the national share of the vote, with UKIP in third place at 18 percent. YouGov questioned 1,808 voters Oct. 30-31. It didn’t specify a margin of error.

The poll also found 79 percent of respondents agreeing that Britain should set a firm limit on immigration, even if it means defying EU rules.

Continued speculation on the U.K.’s membership of the bloc could damage business, according to Cable.

“The point of view of the international business community who are investing in the U.K. is they want to have certainty and one of the certainties has been our membership of the European single market,” he said.

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