British-German axis emerges against benefits tourism

German MP Stephen Mayer [Germany Embassy, London/Flickr]

The UK and Germany both want to see tighter controls on access to welfare for EU migrants, according to German MP Stephan Mayer, who was in London to step up the Christian Social Union’s (CSU) campaign against so-called benefits tourism in Europe.

Speaking at a conference on Anglo-German reform, hosted by euro-critical think tank Open Europe on 12 March, Mayer said the facts clearly showed “an increasing problem of welfare abuse by EU migrants”.

“We want immigration to the job market, but to prevent immigration to the job centre,” added Mayer, who is a member of the Bundestag’s Internal Affairs Committee and migration spokesperson for the CSU in Bavaria.

Mayer acknowledged that southern and eastern EU migration was necessary for the German economy. But immigration had risen to the top of the political agenda in Germany after the country experience net migration of over 400,000 last year, he added.

Tighter controls on access to welfare benefits for EU migrants look increasingly likely and could play a key role in the renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU.

Speaking in London last week, First Vice-President of the Commission Frans Timmermans said public support for freedom of movement risked being undermined if it was perceived to damage national social security systems.

>> Read: Timmermans backs UK push against ‘welfare tourism’

David Cameron has promised a renegotiation of the terms of the Uk’s membership ahead of an in/out referendum by 2017 if he wins the general election in May. Immigration is likely to be a key issue.

Both Berlin and the Commission have made it clear they won’t accept changes to the principle of freedom of movement. But the foreign minister of Latvia – which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU – has suggested changes to the system could be made within member states domestic policy.

The Conservatives want to stop in-work benefits being paid to EU migrants until they have been in the UK for four years, and stop migrants claiming child benefit for dependents living outside of the UK.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Voting on Brexit: The EU issues shaping the UK election

Mayer backed such calls. He told the audience, “I am in favour of paying child care benefit in accordance with the country the child lives in.”

EU-US trade pact

Mayer and UK Europe Minister David Lidington, who was also present at the event, were stringent in their support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

They warned the result of failing to conclude the TTIP negotiations would be to push the US towards Asia, leaving Europe isolated.

“The alternative to TTIP is not the status quo. It is allowing the US and Asia to set global standards and us having to comply with those,” said Lidington.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would try to curb EU immigration if re-elected this year.

Cameron's Conservative Party is under growing pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of a May 2015 national election.

The Conservatives want to stop what they regard as welfare abuse by poor immigrants from eastern Europe with no jobs and no health coverage, and ease pressure on local services, such as health and housing.

The UK initially appeared isolated on the issue, with the European Commission saying there was no evidence to back claims of "benefit tourism".

>> Read: 'Benefits tourism' in the EU is a myth, report says

But countries with buoyant economies such as UK and Germany are attracting increasing numbers of migrants from across the EU, fueling concerns of pressure on domestic social security regimes. 

Cameron's campaign against welfare tourism also received unexpected backing from the European Court of Justice, which ruled recently that EU member states can block jobless immigrants from receiving specific welfare benefits.

>> Read: EU judges rule against 'welfare tourists' in nod to Cameron

Signalling a potential change of thinking in Brussels, Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans recently said support for the EU's freedom of movement rules will dwindle if welfare abuse is not tackled.

>> Read: Timmermans backs UK push against 'welfare tourism'

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