Berlin wants Britain to stay in EU but won't negotiate on immigration: Merkel spokesman

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks on high speed rail link HS2, at the launch of the HS2 report, in Leeds Civic Hall, northern England on Oct 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks on high speed rail link HS2, at the launch of the HS2 report, in Leeds Civic Hall, northern England on Oct 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany wants Britain to remain an "active and engaged" member of the European Union but will not cede on Prime Minister David Cameron's plans to curb immigration from other EU countries, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said on Monday.

"It is up to Britain to clarify what role it wants to play in future in the European Union. This is not a bilateral matter between Germany and Britain but between Britain and all of its European partners," said Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert.

Germany wants Britain to stay in the bloc, but Merkel has also made it very clear that "the general principle of freedom of movement in the European Union is not negotiable", Seibert told a news conference.

Under growing pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of a May 2015 national election and from many of his own lawmakers, Cameron has said he'd like to try to curb EU immigration if re-elected - a move Brussels says would infringe the right to free movement.

German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Sunday that Merkel had warned Cameron that such a policy would be a"point of no return" that could sharply increase the risk of Britain leaving the EU.

If re-elected, Cameron has pledged to renegotiate Britain's EU ties before giving Britons a membership referendum in 2017 amid public disenchantment about the government's failure to curb immigration because of the country's EU membership.

Cameron has not yet set out what those plans are, but has made it clear he wants to find a way of respecting the EU's rules which guarantee freedom of movement to work, while clamping down on what he has called "freedom to claim benefits." Germany has expressed sympathy with such a position in the past and Merkel's spokesman said there was "strong interest" in cooperating with Britain to tackle any abuse of the freedom of movement regime.

Britain's finance minister on Monday shrugged off the Der Spiegel report.

"I think it's a little bit thin," George Osborne said of the report in Der Spiegel, saying his own contacts with the German government had shown Berlin understood British public disquiet about unemployed EU migrants claiming welfare benefits.

"The British public want this addressed. We are going to do this in a calm, rational way," Osborne told BBC TV.

He said concerns about EU immigration were running so high in Britain that Cameron's Conservatives were obliged to explain how they would address them if re-elected. "It was never envisaged that you would have such large numbers of people coming, who don't have job offers, people who move on to our benefit system," said Osborne. "And that causes a lot of public unhappiness."