"Free movement within Europe needs to be less free," British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote on Friday in a guest editorial for the Financial Times. Then he outlined a detailed list of ways the United Kingdom plans to limit access for European Union citizens to his country's social benefits.
The attack on some of the EU's most popular basic rights has sparked outrage across Europe, though Cameron has defended his comments by saying that other countries -- such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands -- share his position.
Indeed, in April the four countries sent a letter to the European Commission complaining of the burden immigrants have placed on their social systems and calling for solutions. And in the new coalition contract between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the CSU pushed through several passages critical of migration under the heading "Poverty Migration within the EU." National and European laws must be changed so that "incentives for migrants in social security systems will be reduced," it says. Among other things, it continues, it should be possible to erect temporary re-entry barriers for people who have cheated the system. In addition, it should be "clarified" which benefits could be withheld from jobseekers.
The escalation in rhetoric is related to an impending deadline: Beginning on Jan. 1, 2014, there will be full freedom of movement for workers from Romania and Bulgaria. Both countries have been full European Union members since 2007, but their citizens have thus far faced restricted access to labor markets in nine other EU states. Experts believe that the feared stampede of new migrants will not materialize because the majority of people who wanted to move abroad did so a long time ago. But politicians in Western Europe are still nervous. Cameron, in particular, is worried that the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) will make massive gains in the European Parliament elections scheduled for next spring.
'Legitimate Concerns and Problems'
At the next meeting of EU interior ministers, to be held on Dec. 5, Germany and the UK therefore want to bring renewed pressure to the topic. Germany's incumbent interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU), will take part. "The commission is called upon to respond in its final written report for the forthcoming council in December to the legitimate concerns and problems of member states and to identify real solutions," says an Interior Ministry spokesman. From a German point of view, this refers in particular to what measures and sanctions are allowed against the "abuse of the right to free movement on the basis of European law."
"That is especially true for the imposition of temporary re-entry barriers," the spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The UK has plans that go much further: Cameron's government also wants to curb benefits for things such as child benefits for foreigners from EU states and is discussing new rules for future candidates for EU accession. The proposal would only grant these countries' citizens access to the EU labor market once these countries had achieved a certain level of per capita income. On this, Germany's Interior Ministry only says: "We have no comment on individual national measures that would affect other member states in this context."
Austria and the Netherlands, on the other hand, appear to have dropped out of the campaign against benefit tourism. A spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry in Vienna said the country currently doesn't see any need for negotiations because the problem of benefit tourism doesn't exist there. Meanwhile, the Dutch labor ministry says that it will have a look at Cameron's plans, but that it doesn't currently have any of its own demands to make of the EU. The main worry in The Hague, it continues, is not abuse of social benefits, but rather the issue of whether one can guarantee equality of pay for Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants.
Is the Problem Being Exaggerated?
This week, the European Commission submitted a "five-point plan" as a response to the interior ministers. It calls for publishing a handbook related to sham marriages, clarifying the rules related to residency tests, offering online training to municipal employees and hosting a meeting of various mayors in February to allow the exchange of best practices. What's more, it calls for EU Social Funds to be used to improve the living conditions of residents of poorer EU countries. Absent from the document, however, is any mention of harsher sanctions against migrants.
Indeed, the Commission believes that the extent of the problem has been exaggerated. The spokesman for Laszlo Andor, the EU commissioner for employment and social affairs, told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday that not a single EU member state had provided evidence to support claims about so-called "benefit tourism." Citing a recent report by the European Commission, he added that jobless EU migrants make up less than 5 percent of those claiming social benefits in most EU states, and that the majority of them are students and pensioners. Likewise, a study published by the Centre for European Policy Studies in September concluded that social benefits did not exert a magnetic effect on EU migrants.
Thus, in Brussels' view, there is no need to amend related EU rules. The EU's Free Movement Directive already allows members states to take "all necessary measures" against EU foreigners in cases of social-benefit abuse, including expulsion.
In fact, even conservatives in the European Parliament view the British campaign as overblown. "Cameron should stop running after UKIP," said Manfred Weber, a member of Germany's center-right Christian Social Union (CSU) who serves as vice chair of the conservative European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament. "He only strengthens UKIP with his rhetoric." EU law already prohibits immigration into social systems, he added, and all possibilities must first be exhausted at the national level should there be any implementation problems.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has gone even further, suggesting that the UK should give some thought to exiting the European single market.