Some solutions for the EU social benefits debate
10.06.14 @ 09:27
BRUSSELS - The free movement of workers was a major theme for several EU member states going to the polls in May's European Parliament elections.
In countries like Denmark, France and the UK, the wish to curb migrant workers' right to social benefits contributed to the landslide victories of eurosceptic parties.
This prickly debate is now likely to become a major issue for the new European Parliament and Commission alike.
While there is no proof of large-scale economic pressures on national welfare systems in net-receiver countries (no member state has reported such evidence to the EU), the public's concerns weigh heavily on politicians.
Fundamental principles of integration are at stake.
The free movement of workers is integral to the EU's internal market and, together with the free movement of goods, capital and services, it is vital for economic growth in Europe.
Is it possible to accommodate widespread worries about the impact of EU migration on national welfare without jeopardising the letter and spirit of the internal market?
A synopsis of four suggestions following consultations with experts in the area shows that there is plenty of room for manoeuvre.
Better use of current options
There is much to be gained from better application of existing rules. First and foremost, administrative cooperation amongst EU-authorities must be improved. EU-Regulation 883/04 on the coordination of social security schemes provides for this, but there are plenty of shortcomings.
An unemployment registry, for instance, needs to have adequate means of checking whether a citizen who takes their allowance to another member state to look for a job has a genuine residence there.
And it needs help from other member states to effectively establish the past salaries of a migrant worker in order to determine the size of the unemployment allowance.
The European Commission could offer training programmes to assist national authorities in dealing with EU migration.
The Commission should also provide a yearly report with detailed statistics on internal EU migration.
As data is compiled differently across member states, it is inherently difficult to compare. An overview of who migrates where would improve the EU and member states' ability to accommodate unintentional consequences, such as shortages of medical staff in sender countries, and schooling needs in receiver countries.
Gear up national welfare systems
In Germany, a committee appointed by the federal government is investigating claims to social protection by EU citizens. The committee has proposed targeted financial assistance to municipalities hosting a high number of EU migrants – helping them deal with housing and healthcare needs, amongst other issues – together with recommendations on how to avoid misuse of free movement rights.
Other member states could benefit from setting up their own committees, especially those with dated social security rules.
The specifics would differ from country to country. While some might want to define vesting periods for unemployment benefits according to past salary, rather than time spent in employment, others might prioritise issuing targeted vouchers for child allowances, rather than blank checks.
Revisit regulation 883/04
The most important law coordinating social security rules for EU citizens working in another member state (EU-Regulation 883/04) is 10 years old. It was written before the EU's largest and most diverse enlargement took place, and before one of the biggest economic, financial and social crisis ever hit the continent.
Not surprisingly, the Commission's work programme for 2014 includes a review of this regulation.
A review would provide an opportunity to finally define what is meant by "a worker" (for instance how many hours of part-time employment is enough to warrant such categorisation?).
It could also strengthen efforts against social dumping by making it obligatory for authorities to inform EU migrants about national working conditions as they register in a given country.
Establish a European Mobility Fund
A European Mobility Fund would make it an EU-wide task to alleviate challenges arising from the free movement of workers.
It would assist a country reporting disproportionate pressures on its social security system as a result of immigration – perhaps through temporary co-financing.
It would also help out when emigration causes problems for individual sectors – for instance by supporting recruitment needs and maintaining-of-staff efforts in the face of a "brain drain".
To begin with, the Mobility Fund, like the EU's Globalisation Fund, could be financed through transfers from funds with unused means.
If Europe's new leaders and parliamentarians taking up office in Brussels these months are to succeed, it will in no small part depend on their ability to accommodate their citizens' widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, as voiced so forcefully at the European Parliament elections.
Concern about EU migration was a direct reason for eurosceptic voting in several countries. But as the four proposals above suggest, this is one area with ample room for constructive political problem-solving.
The writer is head of research at EUROPE, a Danish thinktank on EU affairs.