Thyssen proposes rules to fight ‘populist’ charges of welfare tourism

Marianne Thyssen [European Commission]

EU countries will be able to deny unemployment benefits to someone from another member state if they have worked less than three months in the country where they’re seeking support, under new rules proposed today (13 December).

The proposal includes measures that will allow Europeans who move to another member state to hold onto unemployment benefits from their home country for six months while they look for a job abroad. Currently, those benefits are only guaranteed for up to three months.

According to Commission estimates, 11.3 million adults of working age live in EU countries but are citizens of other member states.

Another measure in the proposal gives EU countries the right to deny social benefits if a person from another EU member state doesn’t have health insurance or enough money to support themselves.

Marianne Thyssen, the EU’s employment Commissioner, said the measures will cut down on abuse and also fight back against attacks from populist parties that want to limit immigration at a time when those parties are gaining ground in some EU countries.

Thyssen said anti-immigration parties focus in their political campaigns on benefits to unemployed people and incorrectly “say the EU opens floodgates for welfare tourism”.

As part of the new proposal, Thyssen also rejected some richer countries’ calls for an EU law that would allow national governments to pay lower childcare benefits to parents who work in one country but support children who live in another EU state.

Under the rules suggested by some governments, a person who for example works in Denmark, which pays higher childcare benefits, would receive less money if their children lived in a member state where those benefits are lower. Less than 1% of all childcare benefits paid by EU countries are sent to support children living in other member states.

But Thyssen said she would not cave to those countries’ demands “because I want to stick to my principles”.

Allowing national governments to pay lower rates to people whose children live abroad would “sacrifice the principle of fairness and equal treatment for peanuts” because so few people use benefits to support children in other countries, Thyssen said.

Slovak minister: 'A European unemployment scheme is important'

State Secretary of Finance Ivan Lesay does not include Slovakia among the “hawkish” member states opposed to a fiscal stimulus for the eurozone. In an interview with EURACTIV, he also backed calls for a European unemployment insurance scheme.

The demand is similar to what EU leaders agreed to give former UK Prime Minister David Cameron as part of a compromise deal earlier this year. But the deal was thrown out when British voters chose to leave the EU in June.

Thyssen told reporters the proposal is not a reaction to the UK referendum and was already being drafted “before we heard the word ‘Brexit’”.

But the proposal was delayed from December 2015, when her office first planned to announce the new measures. Campaigners in favour of taking Britain out of the EU vowed to cut benefits to immigrants from other EU countries.

The idea of allowing lower benefits to support children living in other countries, separately from a parent, gained traction with other EU leaders even after it was thrown out after the Brexit vote.

Austria’s Family Minister Sophie Karmasin said earlier today that she would “surely not allow” the new proposal without measures allowing for lower child benefits. With no EU legislation guaranteeing countries the right to pay lower childcare benefits, Karmasin said she will consider proposing a national law allowing Austria to create an index of the different benefit rates it can pay to people whose children live in other EU countries.

“I would wish good luck to those that want to do that. It’s very complex,” Thyssen said when asked about Karmasin’s comments.

The EU Commissioner declined to say whether a potential national law would break EU rules.

The Commissioner said a law allowing lower childcare benefits for families with children abroad would conflict with a controversial bill she presented earlier this year that aims to provide “equal pay for equal work” to anyone sent from one EU country to work temporarily in another.

That proposal has caused strife between rich and poor member states. France has been especially encouraging of the bill, which French government ministers argue would cut down on social dumping from workers who are sent temporarily from other EU countries and earn less than the going rate in France.

Thyssen acknowledged that the posted workers proposal has slowly trudged through negotiations with the European Parliament and national governments under the guidance of Slovakia, which holds the rotating six-month EU Council presidency until the end of the year. Slovakia has opposed the proposal along with a group of other eastern and central European countries.

Officials from those countries have argued that a law mandating higher wages for posted workers would be unfair because companies based in eastern EU countries often pay higher costs in legal fees, transport and lodging to send employees to other member states.

No end in sight to posted workers debate

EU member states continue to clash on the reform of the posted workers directive, in a dispute that looks likely to drag on for a long time to come. EURACTIV France reports.

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