Restrictions on Mobility and Social Rights of Poor EU Migrants

How do member states respond to EU migrants social rights within the limits of EU law? In the following, I will assess whether and how member states restrict access to their welfare states. Following the literature on immigrant rights and welfare state types, the empirical component examines evidence from three different regime types: the conservative, contribution-based German welfare state; the universalistic Swedish welfare state; and the liberal welfare state of the UK. The cases are selected based on the independent variable of regime type in order to assess the potential influence of the welfare system on policy response. It is difficult to draw generalizations from this small sample. However, we will see whether and how regime type is significant in determining policy response and how other variables are important in shaping policy output.

Germany: Reducing Opportunities for 'Fraud'

The German media and public intensively discuss EU movers’ potential and actual access to the welfare state. Especially in 2014 in preparation for Romanians’ and Bulgarians’ eligibility for full EU freedom of movement rights, the media reported on cases where EU citizens had gained access to the welfare state without having contributed to the system. Although the reception of benefits was legitimate by law, the fact that EU citizens were economically inactive or only partially active and receiving benefits was considered fraudulent. At the same time, actual cases of abusive behaviour could hardly be found. The discussion started with reports from municipalities that claimed to be overburdened with EU movers’ access to public services and social assistance. In this debate, particular attention was on members of the Roma minority, their destitute living conditions and visible poverty.[1] Many Roma had entered Germany within the EU freedom of movement regulation for workers and the selfemployed. As citizens of Bulgaria or Romania—EU member states since 2007—they could claim access to the German market as self-employed service providers (Art. 56 TFEU). This option allowed EU migrants to establish residence status in Germany as self-employed traders or business owners. The requirements for obtaining this status are low: the place of residence could be shared and the business to be undertaken did not have to fulfil any requirements. Municipalities saw a causal relationship between easy conditions for taking up residence and the rising numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians moving to Germany. Between 2007 and 2012 their numbers had doubled from 30,000 to more than 70,000 (Freie Hansestadt Hamburg 2013, 3-4).

Once residence status is gained, certain non-contributory benefits can be accessed. Among other benefits, the comparatively generous German child allowance of 184 euros per child, and more for families with many children, can be claimed. Residence of one parent is the sufficient condition for this benefit; the children can live in another EU country. In 2013, the German government paid this allowance for 66,261 children who did not live in Germany. Children of Polish workers living in Poland were the largest group of recipients. The German Lander considered the residency status of only one parent too lenient to be the sole requirement for eligibility to claim the child allowance. Using a comparatively low average income in some member states as the basis for their position, the Lander claimed child allowance to be an incentive for EU movers to come to Germany (Freie Hansestadt Hamburg 2013, 14). Next to their concerns over eligibility for child allowance, they raised awareness of their increasing financial burdens in providing for education, housing and emergency healthcare for EU citizens (Freie Hansestadt Hamburg 2013). In the run-up to the election of the European Parliament in 2014, the centre-right Christian Social Union (CSU) jumped on the municipalities’ critique and campaigned for policy change in EU citizen access to the welfare system. Under pressure from a newly founded Eurosceptic party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the CSU pushed the issue at the federal level.

Public and political debate motivated the centre-left federal government to adopt measures that restricted access requirements for the establishment of EU residence as self-employed person or jobseeker. In the conservative German welfare state, participation in the labour market leads to access to benefits (Menz 2006, 404). Accordingly, in order to rule out the possibility of bogus self-employment, trade authorities now more rigorously scrutinize business intentions of EU citizens who claim selfemployment status. The right to reside as a jobseeker has been restricted to six months (BMI and BMAS 2014, 94). The length of stay for this category of EU migrant is not determined in EU law; its restriction to six months means a serious restriction in the opportunities of EU jobseekers to find employment in Germany.

The room for the national legislature to restrict access to benefits is quite limited. As discussed above, child allowance was a major issue of concern since its easy accessibility was considered an incentive for moving to Germany. The Lander aimed for the connection of the allowance to the child’s residence in Germany or school enrolment, although child allowance is a tax benefit that supports the subsistence of the child and cannot be used for social regulation. However, authorities can tighten checks with regard to the lawful residence status of the parents. It used to be common practice to imply the rightful and habitual residence of EU citizens who claimed child benefits to be the municipality in which they lived. This practice has been changed: the local administration must now check the right of residence and look for proof of rental contracts documenting habitual residence. In addition, eligibility for child allowance is tied to a tax identification number (BMI and BMAS 2014, 9, 97-99). Despite these measures aimed at restricting access to the welfare state, the government has also supported municipalities in their efforts to provide housing, schooling and health. More than 200 million euros have been allocated for on-site support for destitute EU migrants (Federal Government of Germany 2014).

The German response to EU citizens’ access to the welfare state concentrates on reducing opportunities for fraud by making access to residence status more cumbersome. In cases of fraud, legislative changes allow for banning EU citizens from re-entering Germany after expulsion. Despite open borders, re-entry bans are supposed to make expulsion of EU citizens more efficient. The government has framed these measures as a response to the possibility of welfare state abuse. Although such abuse has been difficult to prove, the measure might have negative effects on groups of EU movers, first of all those of lower socio-economic status. The right of residence of EU citizens claiming the status of self-employed or jobseeker will be checked more thoroughly or be restricted in length so that access to non-contributory benefits can be limited. At the same time, the government has allocated decisive resources in order to improve the living conditions of destitute EU citizens in German municipalities. In this regard, the case of Germany is paradoxical: restriction and expansion of access to resources occurs simultaneously. By restricting legal opportunities for poor EU migrants to acquire residence status, EU freedom of movement is limited in its function as a tool for the promotion of social via spatial mobility.

  • [1] See media coverage on the topic: Budras, Corinna. 2014. “Welche Sozialleistungen stehenEU-Burgern zu?” F.A.Z., 28 March. Accessed August 5, 2015. Stegemann, Jana. 2013. ‘Job-Center verweigern rechtswidrigLeistungen fur EU-Burger’, SUddeutsche Zeitung, 11 October. Accessed August 5, 2015.
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