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17th Aug 2019

EU to extend welfare rights, despite UK warning

  • Dole queue: is 'benefit tourism' a real problem anyway? (Photo: EUobserver)

European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding has proposed to extend EU nationals' welfare rights despite a warning on "benefit tourism" by major EU countries.

Ministers from Austria, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK in a letter to the commission in March said they want to put an end to EU nationals who go from their home state to another EU country and claim benefits.

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But Reding on Wednesday (8 May) told reporters in Brussels that “no member state has provided the commission with facts about a 'perception' [that something is wrong]."

She said the EU-treaty-based right to free movement is not up for negotiation, “neither now nor for tomorrow.”

She instead proposed to extend unemployment benefits from the current three months to six months for any EU national who leaves their home state to seek work in another EU country.

“EU citizens working only become eligible for social security benefits under a very strictly defined habitual residence test. All this is in the national law, all this is clear,” she said.

The debate comes in the context of labour enlargement for Bulgaria and Romania.

A temporary Dutch and UK ban on Bulgarian and Romanian workers is to expire on 1 January 2014, prompting tabloid media and some politicians to raise the alarm on a new wave of migration.

It also comes in the context of mass-scale unemployment in Europe - 26 million EU nationals, 8 million of whom are young people, currently have no job.

Casting doubt on the benefit tourism warning, Reding said "I really don’t understand the excitement, except for party political election campaign reasons."

To some extent, the numbers back her up.

There are currently 13.6 million EU citizens who are not nationals of the member state where they live.

But according to a March survey by the Netherlands Statistics office, out of the 600,000 non-Dutch EU nationals who live in the Netherlands, only 20,000 claim benefits.

Reding also said that making it easier for EU citizens to seek work in other member states is a big chance to alleviate the economic crisis.

Over 26 million people in the EU are without jobs.

“We have seen how labour mobility has benefitted the European Union. The 15 countries benefited by enlargement to have the 12 newcomers … [and] profited in their GDP rise by 1 percent more wealth due to enlargement,” she noted.

Her proposal on extending welfare rights to six months is part of a package of 12 initiatives to improve EU citizens' quality of life.

Other ideas include cutting red tape in member states, offering better protection for the disabled, eliminating barriers to shopping, improving people’s awareness of their EU rights and preventing member states from depriving their nationals from the right to vote in national elections because they live in another EU country.

The commission aims to implement the objectives during the remainder of the year and into 2014.

EU ministers target 'benefit tourism'

Interior ministers from Austria, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK want to put an end to "benefit tourism," where foreign EU nationals take advantage of social welfare systems in host countries.

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