Germany has announced plans to curb access to welfare for immigrants from other European Union countries, in an attempt to clamp down on the abuse it claims has been a growing problem over the past year.
Under a proposal agreed by the cabinet on Wednesday, Germany could expel EU citizens who have not found work in the country after six months, or who are found to have abused the welfare system. The move comes as other member states such as Britain toughen up social security rules in a bid to curb the so-called "welfare tourism" they say has resulted from EU enlargement.
The plan would also tighten access to child benefit, which would only be given to those with a tax identification number, in an effort to stop families from claiming child support in several countries or for children they don't have. Those convicted of benefits fraud, for example by forging documents or claiming payments while self-employed, could be banned from reentering the country for five years. Opposition politicians say such an entry ban would put it on a collision course with the EU, which maintains strict rules on freedom of movement within the bloc.
The proposal still needs parliamentary approval, but as Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition has a wide majority, it is expected to pass swiftly.
The plans are a response to the lifting of restrictions in January on immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, fuelling concerns that some citizens from poorer EU countries are traveling to richer member states simply to claim welfare. Complaints have been voiced by several major German cities over "poverty migration" as deprived immigrants — many of them Roma from the two eastern European countries — relocate only to find themselves living in overcrowded conditions and unable to find work, thus challenging municipal budgets.
"Freedom of movement is an essential part of the European integration, which we fully stand behind," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday, insisting the measures would not clash with EU rules. "However, that does not mean we should close our eyes to the problems that come with it."
De Maiziere said Germany will set aside around €25 million ($32.9 million) for the cities most affected by the problem, aiding with the costs of housing and heating and making health insurance providers pay for necessary vaccines and medical care.
Officials in the cities concerned, however, are skeptical at best. "It's a good signal that cities will receive €25 million this year to handle additional costs," Ulrich Maly, mayor of Nuremberg and president of the German Associations of Cities and Towns told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But the organization says that alleged welfare abuse is not the central problem for cities — and that Germany would be better off rallying for improved living conditions for people in their home countries.
The opposition has sharply criticized the proposed reforms. The Green Party called it "defamatory and unsubstantial," while the Leftist Party said the measures were populist. Even politicians involved in drafting the reform have contended that the immigration debate in Germany is overly focused on suspected frauds. Other European countries in need of workers and with strong social systems were less concerned about immigration,they suggested in a recent report.
However the German proposals are part of a growing trend across Europe. Britain recently announced it would cut the period EU immigrants could claim benefits from six to three months; other countries such as France and Sweden have also introduced tighter restrictions.
In Germany, critics say the measures are more about making concessions than tackling an actual problem. They suggest Merkel's Christian Democrats have come forth with the proposal as a populist peace offering to their smaller Bavarian sister party, CSU. In the weeks leading up to the European elections the Bavarian party coined the phrase "Who cheats will be kicked out" and cautioned against "welfare tourism" to Germany, which opponents argue comes dangerously close to classic slogans used by the far right NPD: "Criminal foreigners out!"
"I find it questionable, that measures to fight welfare abuse are tied to a certain group — Romanians and Bulgarians."
The problem with all this, according to critics: there's no evidence that mass welfare abuse is actually a problem in Germany.
Since January, citizens from Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, are benefiting from the European principle of freedom of movement for workers, allowing them to legally work in Germany and entitling them to German welfare — after a period of three months. They can apply for benefits if they are unemployed or not earning enough money to make a living. In the first half of the year immigration from these countries to Germany has increased: according to the Institute for Employment Research, 63,000 Romanians and Bulgarians came to Germany since January, upping the total number of immigrants from these countries to around 465,000.
Yet nothing gives cause to believe that this leads to the stampede for German welfare that some politicians and members of the press are suspecting.
The majority of these 465,000 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants are working — meaning they are paying taxes and money into the German system. As of May 2014, only around 13 percent of them receive any welfare at all.
More Romanians and Bulgarians receive benefits now than did last year, because their numbers have risen. But while the percentage of Romanians and Bulgarians receiving state benefits is a bit higher than the average among German citizens, it's still lower than among immigrants as a whole. Nothing to get worked up about, says migration expert Herbert Brücker of the Institute for Labor Market and Employment Research.
Brücker also stressed that according to the numbers of his institute, there is no reason to believe that Romanians and Bulgarians are trying to cheat the German state.
"I find it questionable, that measures to fight welfare abuse are tied to a certain group — Romanians and Bulgarians," he told German public television. "There is nothing to indicate that these groups substantially abuse welfare." An inquiry by the Green Party revealed that in 2013 only a total of around 200 cases of suspected welfare abuse were recorded, involving alleged frauds such as fake marriages or forged papers to gain access to welfare and the German labor market. That translates to 0.5 percent of all Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants in Germany.
"I was very surprised to hear at the [interior ministry] press conference that the reforms are intended to objectify the debate — when in fact we don't have any reason to believe that there is an increase in abuse to the German social system or poverty migration," Ferda Ataman, who runs a German media agency intending to give objective information around migration issues, told VICE News. "Yet we push for a reform and make it seem as if this is the case."
She said all the proposed measures are essentially importing into German law what is already established in EU law.
The only policies that are actually new, Ataman says, are the stricter controls on child benefits and the stipulation of the length of the re-entry ban for those convicted of welfare fraud.
Ataman argues that the current debate is problematic "because it implies that EU citizens receiving benefits in Germany are doing something illegal. When in fact they are just practicing their rights."
Opponents of the latest move argue that it is largely based on racist fears and stereotypes: begging and stealing Roma flooding the streets, or thugs and prostitutes filling the inner cities, "poverty migration" en masse to a heavenly German social system. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stresses that a sizable portion of the new migrants are highly qualified and much needed by the German economy.
When Poland joined the ranks of freely moving EU citizens in 2011, Germany feared a similar invasion of Polish migrants to its labor market. Instead it quickly became clear that Germany was mostly profiting from the addition to its workforce.
Follow Chris Köver on Twitter: @ckoever