Germany prepares tighter controls on EU ‘welfare tourists’

Roma campsite in Norway. [Dnevnik, the EURACTIV partner in Bulgaria]

A government panel has recommended that Germany screen job-seekers from other European Union states for “welfare tourists” and people not qualified for employment and then expel benefit fraudsters and block their return for a fixed period.

Economic growth and low unemployment make Germany a magnet for EU citizens taking advantage of free movement in the bloc, and industry is short of workers. But there are also fears of an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians fleeing poverty, since these countries gained full access to the EU jobs market this year.

With some German cities complaining that their health services and welfare workers are already unable to cope with the number of unemployed eastern Europeans, in January, Angela Merkel’s government set up a panel to look into how to avoid such abuse.

Its interim findings will be presented to the media this Wednesday, but a copy seen by Reuters shows that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD) is preparing to tighten the rules.

“The government supports freedom of movement and Germany benefits from it. At the same time, we must recognise that a lot of problems can be associated with immigration,” it said.

Germany’s population grew for the third consecutive year in 2013, with the highest level of net migration in two decades, and a sharp rise from eastern Europe. It is too early to say whether Romania and Bulgaria’s full integration from 1 January will produce the even more dramatic increase that has been forecast for 2014.

Guenter Krings, a deputy interior minister and lawmaker in Merkel’s conservative camp, said Berlin considered free movement for workers “one of the main pillars of the European Union”.

“But free movement at European level has a purpose: to find a place to work or study,” he told Reuters. “If you don’t have even a theoretical chance of getting employment, the necessary prerequisites for free movement are not fulfilled.”

Skilled immigrants welcome

The government says most Romanians and Bulgarians come legally to work or study, but a minority pretend to be self-employed to get supplementary benefits, or claim child benefits, with no real chance or intention of getting a job.

“We want to make it clear that immigrants are still welcome in Germany,” Krings said in an interview. “And when it comes to immigrants, we don’t want to distinguish between good and bad countries of origin of immigrants, but between sufficient and insufficient qualifications of the immigrants.”

Late last year, the mayors of 16 cities such as Cologne, Hanover and Dortmund made a public plea for help in coping with unemployed immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom are from the Roma minority.

The public debate is less strident than elsewhere in the EU. But Germany shares the concern that an anti-immigrant backlash could boost the far-right in May’s European Parliament election.

“If 80 percent of immigrants from one country are well integrated, that is not an argument for accepting the other 20 percent that are not fulfilling the criteria of the European legal regime for free movement,” said Krings.

The conservative-run interior ministry and SPD-run labour ministry co-chair the panel of the top civil servants from 11 ministries, ensuring balance between the two forces in Merkel’s “grand coalition”, which will be 100 days old on Wednesday.

It proposes limiting job-seekers’ stay to three months if they don’t find work, expelling those who commit benefit fraud, blocking their return for a certain period, and imposing closer bureaucratic controls on those seeking benefits.

Police and employment offices should prosecute firms who use unregistered workers, and the government should give €200 million to alleviate social problems in the worst-affected cities, the panel recommended.

The German government established a new committee in January to investigate the effects of so-called  "poverty immigration" from Bulgaria and Romania, amid complaints from overburdened cities. 

>> Read: Germany readies response to ‘poverty immigration’

After Bulgaria and Romania’s EU accession on 1 January 2007, most EU countries lifted the restrictions to their labour markets to workers from these countries.

But restrictions remained in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK.

These countries required Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to have work permits before entering their territory.

According to the Bulgaria and Romania accession treaties, of 1 January 2014 those restrictions are entirely lifted everywhere in the Union.

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