Welfare for Immigrants: EU Wants Fortress Germany to Open Up
Brussels is demanding that even foreigners who have never worked in Germany should have access to the country's unemployment benefits if they hail from an EU member state. The EU is firing Germany's already overheated immigration debate.
Lazlo Andor knows from personal experience just how advantageous it can be to go abroad. The Hungarian politician studied economics at universities in Washington and Manchester and then worked as a professor in New Jersey for almost four years. Today he's the commissioner responsible for social affairs on the European Commission in Brussels. The social democrat is fond of saying that the right to live and work anywhere one wants in Europe is "one of the cornerstones of EU integration."
Last Friday, he sent a strong message to the German public. In a 40-page position paper for the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the EU's highest court, Andor's staff argues that access to Germany's social system be simplified for other EU citizens.
The arguments Andor's experts put forth in the paper -- under headings like the "right of free mobility" and "access to social benefits, regardless if a person has paid into the system" -- could add further fuel to an already overheated immigration debate here in Germany. Since the Christian Social Union (CSU) party -- the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -- began a crusade against what it calls "poverty immigrants" and "benefit tourists" last year, using the kind of populist language more typically heard at a pub, German politicians have been discussing the creation of new instruments in an effort to keep undesired foreigners out.
Among the ideas being touted are an increase in deportations of foreigners or taking the fingerprints of Bulgarian or Romanian nationals who have entered the country. Now the European Commission is calling for Germany to change its social security laws in the opposite direction in order to ensure easier access to the country's Hartz IV benefits for the long-term unemployed that are at the center of the dispute.
Brussels Attacks 'Blanket Rejection' for Benefits
Officials with the Commission, the EU's executive body, said last week they in no way want to water down "clauses designed to protect against benefit tourism." At the same time, they also reiterated that they consider one of the central provisions of German social security law to be illegal. The idea that Germany can reject social support to EU nationals without a job runs counter to current EU law, they argue.
If the European Court of Justice, which must soon make an initial ruling on the issue, backs the Commission's arguments, it would mark a setback to the campaign by the CSU. Instead of the CSU's "those who cheat, are out" slogan, the guiding principle behind the next reforms to Germany's Hartz IV unemployment benefits would be: "Those who want to come to Germany, can't be denied entrance."
It's no wonder, then, that CSU party boss Horst Seehofer quickly responded to the news by firing fresh broadsides at Brussels. "The European Commission comes up with a proposal almost every week that threatens either German jobs or the acceptance by the population of the European idea," Seehofer said. "The European Commission's disregard for the facts of life in Europe is cause for despair."
German Laws Contradict European Principles
It's possible the Bavarian governor, a man known for his populist bent, will once again strike a chord with public opinion. But when it comes to the facts of the issue at hand, Seehofer is wrong. The attempt to use blanket social security rules to keep out immigrants from Eastern Europe not only makes little sense economically -- it's also the wrong way of engaging in a justified effort to combat abuses of the social system. Germany's laws on this front clearly contradict European principles.
Legal experts have long held this view. "If the German state had really wanted to wall off its social security benefits from other EU citizens, it would have needed to act a lot earlier," says Thorsten Kingreen, a professor of social law at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria.
The train left the station during the late 1990s when the European Court of Justice, in a series of rulings, began to continuously expand social rights in the EU. "Since 1998, member states have no longer been permitted to discriminate against citizens of other member states when disbursing social benefits," says Kingreen. The EU implemented this legal interpretation of its Free Movement Directive a decade ago, and Germany is the only country in which it hasn't become reality.
EU citizens who come to Germany to find work have no automatic right to unemployment benefits, even if they are legitimately seeking a job. That leads to an absurd situation in which an asylum seeker who has entered the country illegally has the right to demand the basics needed to survive, but a French or Bulgarian national who has traveled to the country on a perfectly legal job hunt does not.
A Matter of Time
Given that context, it is hardly a surprise that German social courts have expressed doubts about national regulations. In law firms and offices of government ministries around the country, rulings are piling up that seek to bestow greater rights to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe on the German labor market.
Whether European justices will ultimately side with critics or not could ultimately depend on how they decide to classify the German social benefits being looked at. The decisive question is whether Hartz IV unemployment payments are social benefits or a labor market policy instrument. In terms of social welfare benefits, member states still have the right to be tight-fisted, at least for the time being. This does not, however, apply to instruments of the labor market.
Germany has already laid its groundwork on the issue. Hartz IV was not registered in Europe as social welfare. Rather, it was registered as Germany's implementation of the Migrant Workers Regulation. "By doing so, Germany has already stripped itself of any excuses," says Kingreen. "It is only a matter of time before the European Court of Justice scraps our blanket exclusion clause."
Germany Needs Immigrants
The existing barriers to entry for immigrants in Germany are legally unsustainable. To tighten them even further as the CSU would like to do is doubly dangerous. Instead of having a deterrent effect on people seeking to abuse the social system, it might instead scare away the kind of well-educated workers that Germany so urgently needs. And with its graying and shrinking population, the only option Germany has left for filling vacant jobs and keeping the coffers of the nation's social welfare system flush is immigration.
It has only been thanks to the influx of people from Poland, Romania, Spain and elsewhere that Germany's population has risen slightly over the past three years. At the end of 2013, an estimated 80.8 million people lived in Germany, about 300,000 more than the year before.
And even though critics of immigration in Bavaria might hold a different view, the reality is that skilled foreign workers don't necessarily find Germany to be an attractive place to work and live. Indeed, some local mayors in Bavaria who are today toeing the CSU party line may find themselves traveling this year to Bulgaria or Romania to recruit trainees from those countries to Germany.
- Part 1: EU Wants Fortress Germany to Open Up
- Part 2: 'We Need More Not Fewer Immigrants'
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- Citizens of the two countries were still required to obtain work permits to gain employment in Germany. In order to obtain the permit, a Romanian or Bulgarian national had to have a concrete job offer and the ability to prove that no domestic workers could do the same job.
- Romanian and Bulgarian companies were free to offer their services in Germany, meaning they could send workers to the country to fullfil contract work. Exceptions included the construction and industrial cleaning industries.
- Limits were also removed for the self-employed. The outcome of this is that Romanians and Bulgarians often work in excluded sectors like construction or industrial cleaning as freelancers in situations in which German law actually requires that such workers become full-fledged employees. They often earn low wages and in some cases apply for supplementary welfare benefits from the government to help make ends meet. Others work under the table and do not register with the authorities.
- In some economic sectors, the requirement of a work permit was lifted for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals in 2012. Starting that year, college graduates, trainees and seasonal workers in industries like catering and restaurants no longer had to obtain work permits for employment in Germany.
- All EU citizens who reside in Germany have the right to Germany's child benefit (a benefit of 184 euros paid in cash by the government each month for the first and second child), the means-tested housing benefit to help people with low incomes pay for the roof over their heads and a parental leave benefit that helps give families time to raise small children.
- Employees or the self-employed also have the right to so-called Hartz IV longterm unemployment or wage supplement benefits if their earnings are not sufficient to make a living or after a certain period of time if they have been laid off for no reason of their own doing. Disputed is the question of whether people can receive Hartz IV welfare payments simply because they have come to hunt for a job. Laws regulating Germany's social system prohibit the benefit from being given to these individuals. However, this policy would appear to violate EU regulations.
- Currently, the majority of German social courts are ruling on the basis of EU regulations and are often granting Hartz IV benefits to job-seekers. Leipzig's social court recently referred a case involving a Romanian woman to the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court. In early January, the European Commmission criticized Germany's law and questioned the general exclusion of many EU citizens from access to social benefits.
- EU citizens who work as staff employees and their family members have a right to access Germany's statutory health insurance. Special rules apply to unemployed or retired people, and those who are self-employed can obtain private insurance. Still, many Romanians and Bulgarians living in Germany do not have health insurance, including many self-employed and those working on the black market. In such cases, these individuals only have limited access to emergency medical care. Some are also provided treatment by volunteer doctors at clinics if they become ill.