Sweden: Defending Mobility and Social Rights of EU Migrants
In Sweden issues related to EU migration and mobility had a short period of public and political salience at the time of the first eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 (Bruzelius et al. 2014, 12). Next to Ireland and the UK, Sweden was one of the few countries to open its labour market immediately to citizens of newly acceded Eastern European member states. The country did not impose transition periods on any Eastern European citizen, neither in 2004 nor in 2007. As the cases of Germany and the UK have shown, welfare tourism has been debated in connection to the most recent liberalization of the movements of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens. In Sweden the major debate on welfare tourism took place in 2004 (Bruzelius et al. 2014, 15). At that time, a social democratic minority government considered the generous Swedish welfare state to be a potential pull factor for EU migrants from the East. The government’s attempt to apply transitional measures would not pass parliament; consequently, Sweden’s labour market remained open. After enlargement, no proof could be found that many more EU migrants came to Sweden or took excessive recourse in the Swedish welfare state, neither with regard to social assistance nor child benefits. In the case of child allowance, most benefits are paid to children of foreign workers living in neighbouring Denmark, Norway or Finland (Wadensjo 2007, 15-16).
However, civil society organizations criticized the significant barriers that restrict access to the Swedish welfare state (Vittoria and Zhyla 2013, 13-14). A right to stay can be claimed with the migration board (Migrationsverket) in a given municipality. After three months, a right of residence can be acquired from the same authority by any EU citizen who has a legal right to stay as worker, self-employed, jobseeker, family member or person with sufficient resources. Access to benefits is channelled through the Swedish tax agency and its issuance of a social security number (Personnummer). It is this number that entitles individuals to most benefits relevant for living in Sweden: healthcare, social housing, access to the employment agency, opening a bank account, signing a lease and taking language classes. Registration and thus access to all these services only apply to people staying for at least one year. People staying less than one year receive a coordination number allowing access to labour market services. Since registration for a social security number is the key to accessing social benefits, being without such a number can have the effect of exclusion. For example, EU job seekers only have a right to stay for six months and are not eligible for a social security number (Skatterverket 2015). With regard to EU citizens claiming registration, the Swedish tax agency has been criticized for demanding too many documents, not accepting short-term employment contracts or creating long delays in issuing social security numbers (Vittoria and Zhyla 2013, 14-15). Similarly, some benefits such as child and jobseeker allowances could be accessed more easily in the UK and Germany. Thus, adminis?trative barriers to full access to the welfare state select EU migrants with long-term employment contracts over people who have a more precarious status on the labour market.
While access to the core of the Swedish welfare state can be effectively denied, poor EU migrants still reside in Sweden and have access to emergency health care and housing (EP DG Internal Policies 2009: 149). EU migrants making a living as beggars have become an issue for the public and politics, but not with regard to a debate on welfare tourism. In contrast, politicians and the media identify the issue as a collective European problem that needs to be addressed in EU countries of both origin and destination (Radio Sweden 2014). More instead of less concern for the fundamental social rights of EU citizens is claimed (Bruzelius et al. 2014, 18-19). No direct changes to welfare state access for EU citizens can be reported for Sweden. This account can be traced to the select openness of the welfare state as well as the absence of political mobilization against EU migration.
In Swedish politics there is widespread consensus on the need to protect and appreciate freedom of movement in the EU. This agreement can be explained in the context of the media in a country that holds, by majority, liberal positions and was led by a former liberal-right government (2006-2014). Then-Prime Minister Reinfeldt was pro-European and changed the country’s labour migration policy to become one of the most liberal policies in OECD countries (OECD 2011). The only political party that would disagree with the prevailing consensus on EU freedom of movement and general migration policy is the right-wing Sweden Democrats. So far, the political establishment in Sweden has shunned that party (Bruzelius et al. 2014: 15). However, its electoral success in 2014 will keep a critical voice on EU mobility and migration in the debate.