17th Mar 2018

German conservatives stir up 'welfare tourism' row

  • Sofia: Bulgarians can already travel freely in Europe, but their remaining labour restrictions will be eliminated on 1 January (Photo: dimnikolov)

Several German conservatives are following the footsteps of their British colleagues, stoking fears about "welfare tourism" by Romanian and Bulgarians.

A regional labour court in North Rhine-Westphalia last week ruled that a Romanian family had the right to social benefits even though they had found no job in Germany.

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According to German law, EU citizens can claim unemployment benefits only if they come to Germany for reasons other than seeking a job.

The court however found that this legal provision breaches the EU's anti-discrimination rules.

The verdict from North Rhine-Westphalia can still be overruled by the Federal Social Court. A spokeswoman for the German Labour Agency said "there is no reason to presume that this ruling will be applied at the federal level."

"The verdicts of social courts can vary greatly. We are waiting for the ruling of the highest court," she said.

A separate social court in Lower Saxony later on Tuesday ruled against a similar Romanian plaintiff seeking welfare benefits, arguing that the German law is right in trying to discourage social tourism.

The first verdict, combined with statistics showing that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians receiving unemployment benefits and child support in Germany has doubled since 2011, has prompted several members of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats to warn about welfare tourism.

From January on, labour restrictions will be lifted for Romanians and Bulgarians all across the EU.

"We are at the beginning of a new migration wave," Hans-Werner Sinn, a Conservative economist, told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

In an article in Die Welt, CDU deputy Gunter Krings warned of combining "freedom of movement rules within the EU with high social benefits" because it would create the "wrong incentives" for people to come to Germany because of its welfare system.

His Bavarian colleague, Hans-Peter Uhl, told the same paper that people who "have absolutely no chance to really get a job or be self-employed, should not receive social benefits."

The picture is not as black and white as the tough rhetoric suggests however.

There has indeed been a doubling since 2011 (to 38,801) of the number of Romanians and Bulgarians receiving unemployment benefits and child support, according to the German labour agency.

But this represents less than one percent of all the people in Germany receiving such benefits. There are 4.4 million on the unemployment payroll and 1.7 million receiving social aid.

And of the over one million foreigners receiving German welfare benefits, Turks continue to be the largest group (352,231), followed by Poles (70,540) and Italians (62,374).

The issue has moved up the political agenda amid general anti-immigrant sentiment in the EU.

British leader David Cameron last week suggested he would make free movement of people in the EU "less free" adding, in a newspaper article that British people were right to be concerned about the possible impact of lifting the labour restrictions.

There is hostility elsewhere too. A recent poll revealed that 80 percent of Dutch people were against Romanians and Bulgarians being able to freely come and seek work in the Netherlands.

But the Dutch Parliament on Tuesday rejected a motion filed to keep the restrictions in place, saying it would infringe EU law.

The UK, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands earlier this year called on the European Commission to tighten EU rules to stop welfare tourism.

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