Thursday

17th Aug 2017

UK calls for welfare restrictions after EU election result

  • The British minister targeted child benefit payments (Photo: foreversouls)

Britain's minister for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, visited his German counterpart on Tuesday (3 June), making the case for an overhaul of EU rules on freedom of movement in response to the anti-EU and anti-immigrant vote in the EU elections.

"The EU elections sent a kind of shock wave through much of the EU," he said at an event organised by the centre-right Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a Berlin-based political foundation.

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He recounted he had many discussions with his counterparts in Europe over the last few years "about our concerns regarding the application of EU rules on welfare".

"I was often left with the feeling that while sympathetic to our concerns, most generally implied these are just British concerns. But with the rise of anti-EU sentiments I hope I can be bold enough to say they are not all British now," he said.

He added the British government is overhauling the social benefits system in order to reduce the numbers of people – British citizens and migrants alike – who abuse the system and who are not motivated to work.

"There was a lack of conditionality in the system that allowed people to sit on benefits unchallenged. It became a way of life, with one in five children growing up in families who never had a job," he said.

The reforms also target migrants, with the British government seeking German support in watering down EU rules.

"We've seen interference from the EU, which uses freedom of movement as a pretext to interfere and tell us whom to pay benefits, regardless of their circumstances," he said.

The British minister noted that Germany recently fought in court for its right to refuse social benefits to an unemployed worker from Romania and won. "But we cannot lurch from one court case to another, this is not a sustainable legal system. We need to update the rules to reflect realities – we live in a very different community than 50 years ago," Duncan Smith noted.

On the specifics, he said countries should be allowed to refuse to pay child benefits to EU workers whose children are back home – a provision that is enshrined in EU law.

"This may have made sense when the EU was smaller, with similar GDPs [in all EU states], but now it's unsustainable."

When asked, the minister could not give an overview of how many workers from eastern EU countries access British welfare, saying the previous government did not collect this kind of data.

"That period [up until 2010 when the Conservatives came to power] covered the big surge when we had a very open door policy to accession – around 1 million [people] came into the UK. We don't have data on the claimants, but there are anecdotal stories on how communities have to deal with it, how it puts pressure on schooling, housing," he said.

Germany in wait and see mode

The German government on the other hand has recorded the kind of data missing in the UK and found that people from other EU countries mostly come to Germany to work rather than seek benefits.

Klaus Zimmermann, head of the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA), told this website that his research centre found no evidence to support the scaremongering about "social tourism" from eastern Europe, except for "a few municipalities, even streets" where there were some problems with Roma suddenly settling down and claiming child benefits.

"It is a cheap way to keep the voters quiet. If it's not a big problem and you make it sound like one, then you risk hampering migration of skilled workers that you need," he said.

"Up until now it was Fortress Europe towards the outside, it would be wrong if it turned a fortress on the inside, towards other member states," he added, in reference to the British attempts to put some restrictions on the freedom of movement.

A spokesman for the German labour and social minister told this website the government is still assessing if there is a need to change existing rules on access to welfare for people from other EU countries.

The latest statistics for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens living in Germany show that 11.6 percent of them have claimed benefits, compared to 16 percent among the entire non-German population living in Germany.

Opinion

Some solutions for the EU social benefits debate

Concern about EU migration was a direct reason for eurosceptic voting in several countries last month. But this is an area with ample room for constructive political problem-solving.

Europeans more optimistic about EU since Brexit vote

Perceptions of the EU have increased significantly in France, and Europeans generally feel more optimistic about the future of the bloc since last autumn - despite Brexit and a surge in populism.

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