• EU nationals working in the United Kingdom use “far less benefits” than the average working population of UK nationals, says the European Commission (Photo: Valentina Pop)

EU ministers target 'benefit tourism'

07.03.13 @ 17:50

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - Interior ministers from Austria, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK want to put an end to so-called ‘benefit tourism’ whereby foreign EU nationals take advantage of the social welfare systems in host countries.

The four ministers on Thursday (7 March) said they would draft a letter to get the issue onto the agenda into a justice and homes affairs council meeting, possibly in June.

“For the moment, it is an initiative of these four countries but we will see what will happen in the next few weeks or months,” an EU diplomat close to the issue told this website.

He said they are targeting nationals from Romania and Bulgaria, who allegedly arrive in the host countries with the sole purpose to claim benefits they are not entitled to.

“After some weeks they say they do not have enough income and then they ask for social welfare,” noted the EU diplomat.

He cited half dozen German cities like Mannheim, Dusseldorf, Berlin and Munich, who each are dealing with “hundreds of cases.”

“Our point is that we have to take into consideration, that there is a problem, that the problem exists and now we want to start a debate on how one could tackle this problem,” said the EU diplomat.

He said the ministers spoke of two possible ideas to stem the abuse.

One is to address the high poverty levels in each state and another is to figure out how to deal with people who make multiple attempts to claim benefits without infringing on basic EU liberties like free movement.

The European Commission, for its part, says no member state has provided any proof that EU foreign nationals deliberately shop around for the best deals on social welfare systems.

“No member state, including the United Kingdom, has been able to give us any evidence that there is a problem of ‘benefit tourism’,” Jonathan Todd, the commission’s spokesperson for employment, told journalists in Brussels on Thursday.

Todd pointed out that the EU nationals working in the United Kingdom use “far less benefits” than the average working population of UK nationals.

The commission says existing EU laws are in place to prevent the practice. It noted that non-working EU foreign nationals could draw benefits only if they are habitual residents.

A persons’ family situation, reason for move, length and continuity of residence, are among the factors that determine if someone is a ‘habitual resident’.

“The European Commission will ensure that all aspects of EU law concerning the free movement of workers will be respected,” said Todd.

The debate on the issue has been sparked by the fact that temporary bans on Bulgarian and Romanian workers will be lifted next year.

The UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May last year said they would be unable to “further transitional controls” without breaching the treaty signed when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007.