Freedom of Movement in the EU and Welfare State Closure: Welfare Regime Type, Benefit Restrictions and Their Implications for Social Mobility

Christof Roos

In 2014, mobilization against European Union (EU) freedom rights was one of the winning formulas for the European Parliament (EP) victory of populist parties in France, the United Kingdom (UK) and Denmark (Tanev and Novotny 2014, 1). A year earlier, the governments of Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK had already criticized freedom rights of EU citizens. They called upon the European Council to act against poor EU citizens who allegedly ‘abuse’ their freedom of movement rights through undue access to welfare benefits. Although EU migrants are less likely to claim welfare benefits than nationals (GHK 2013), governments of EU member states feared that ‘welfare tourists’ (UK) and ‘poverty migrants’ (Germany) could become a burden on their budgets.

Since its eastern enlargement in 2004, exacerbated by the economic and financial crisis, the EU has entered a new phase in its free movement regime. Free movement in Europe has become more and more

C. Roos (*)

Institute for European Studies, Free University Brussels, Brussels, Belgium e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2016 267

M. Wulfgramm et al. (eds.), Welfare State Transformations and Inequality in OECD Countries, Transformations of the State,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51184-3_12

diverse, and EU migrants reflect socio-economic disparities among EU member states (Eurofund 2015). Next to mobile middle- and upper-class professionals, ‘Eurostars’ (Favell 2008), people who find themselves in low-pay and low-status groups, increasingly define EU migrant (Galgoczi et al. 2009, 21; Recchi 2015). For many of these poorer EU citizens, the move to industrial centres in the north and west of Europe is a viable option for a better living. Increasing spatial mobility of EU citizens can be understood as a result of growing social inequality among EU member states.

Against the backdrop of these developments, this chapter scrutinizes welfare state transformations of EU member states reacting to EU internal mobility and migration. A trend towards welfare state closure with varying impacts on immigrants of different legal and socio-economic status has been observable across the entire Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) world since the 1990s (Sainsbury 2006, 239-240; on the general increase in inequality in the OECD, see Obinger et al. this volume). EU citizens moving within the EU Schengen area had been exempt from those developments. On the contrary, their social and freedom rights had been expanding for the last six decades. Equal treatment among member state nationals and EU citizens was a key achievement of the EU integration project (Favell and Hansen 2002). But, member states’ recent critique of EU rights seems to seek to reverse this development. How and why member states aim to change social and freedom rights of EU citizens are questions that still pose a research gap. Some scholars point to legal uncertainty as an explanation for policy change. This means EU rights and their interpretation by courts leave member states with legal uncertainty with regard to policy implementation (Blauberger and Schmidt 2014, 2). I contribute to this explanation by scrutinizing the role of the welfare state in providing access to benefits. Accordingly, this chapter adds to the literature by looking at how EU mobility and welfare states interact in motivating policy change.

The debate on EU social and freedom rights is not only about possible restrictions on access to the territory and the welfare state, but also about whether the mobility of EU citizens of low socio-economic status should be encouraged, tolerated or prevented. EU rights for person mobility imply not only rights for exercising economic freedoms but also rights for social inclusion. The social dimension calls for equal treatment and access to certain benefits and has been promoted politically as well as by court judgments. European integration supports a vision of social via spatial mobility in order to foster social cohesion (Prelim 17, Directive 2004/38/EC). Thus, EU freedoms granted to goods, services and capital have been extended to the citizens of member states. Accordingly, the critique of social and freedom rights in the EU poses empirical and normative questions: How and why do member states aim for changing rights? and Do restrictions on access to benefits curtail the aim to promote social via spatial mobility in the EU? In answering these questions, this chapter shows how some EU member states transform their welfare states in order to restrict and discourage movements of poorer EU citizens, thus potentially exacerbating inequality (on the multifaceted concept of inequality, see Gosepath this volume).

This chapter proceeds as follows: the first section gives an account of the legislative evolution of freedom and social rights for EU citizens, from the facilitation of cross-border worker mobility to EU social citizenship. It shows that equal treatment provisions in the EU encourage social via spatial mobility. The second section develops an explanation of member state responses and assesses the hypothesis that the existence and accessibility of non-contributory benefits in the respective welfare state regimes of EU member states are strong predictors of attempts to restrict access to benefits. As empirical basis for this argument, the chapter next studies how and why three EU member states with different welfare state regimes—Germany, Sweden and the UK—try to limit EU citizens’ access to benefits. Data are provided by an analysis of legal and policy documents, grey literature and a secondary analysis of the legal literature on EU freedom rights.

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