The European Commission has responded coldly to calls from four EU ministers to curb so-called ‘benefits tourism’ by introducing rules prohibiting EU nationals expelled for benefits fraud from returning.
In accordance with EU law, workers from Bulgaria and Romania currently enjoy full rights to free movement in Denmark, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Restrictions remain in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK. These typically require Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to have a work permit.
As of January 2014 – seven years after these countries' EU accessions – those restrictions will be entirely lifted.
A Commission spokesman said on Thursday (25 April) that figures were missing to back the ministers' claim.
Two days before, the Commission had received a letter from the interior ministers of the UK, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, warning that some cities in their countries were being put "under a considerable strain by certain immigrants from other member states".
Although the ministers did not mention Bulgaria and Romania, the letter came ahead of a January 2014 deadline, when citizens from these two EU countries will be granted full access to the EU’s job market (see background).
Expulsions are useless if the people can return the next day, the ministers write in the letter, addressed to three EU commissioners - Cecilia Malmström (Home Affairs), László Andor (Employment and Social Affairs) and Viviane Reding (Justice and Fundamental Rights).
According to local reports, the Roma population of these two countries has been involved in sometimes elaborated schemes to drain the social benefit systems of some richer EU countries.
The four ministers would like the issue of ‘benefits tourists’ to be discussed at the June meeting of EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers.
Commission asks for clear data
But Jonathan Todd, spokesperson for Commissioner Andor, said that the EU Executive had never received any figures from member countries indicating the number of foreigners claiming social benefits.
“There are no figures in the letter. They mention the phenomenon, but there are no facts or figures to illustrate the issue which they raised. And we have not received from any other member state any specific figures concerning the extent of this alleged benefit tourism,” Todd said.
The spokesperson explained that EU law already safeguards against benefits tourism, as foreign nationals were only eligible for social assistance if they or a close family member worked in another EU country - or lived there permanently.
Asked about calls to prevent those expelled from returning “the next day”, Todd said he would not prejudge the Commission's stance. But the four countries making those calls were usually the most vocal when the Commission proposed new sanctions, he commented.
An EU source told EurActiv that Bulgaria and Romania, which are not yet members of the border-free Schengen area, could be required to prevent nationals blacklisted for benefits fraud in another EU country from traveling. He added though, that such moves would pose problems in terms of freedom of movement and even human rights abuse.