Thousands of Britons on benefits across EU

Angela Merkel and David Cameron outside Number 10 Downing Street. February 2014. [German Embassy London/Flickr]

Unemployed Britons in Europe are drawing much more in benefits and allowances in the wealthier EU countries than their nationals are claiming in the UK, according to the newspaper The Guardian.

The British government has however argued that migrants flock into the country to secure better welfare payments.

At least 30,000 British nationals are currently claiming unemployment benefit in countries around the EU, The Guardian reported, based on a survey with responses from 23 of the 27 other EU members.

The research shows more than four times as many Britons obtain unemployment benefits in Germany as Germans do in the UK, while the number of jobless Britons receiving benefits in Ireland exceeds their Irish counterparts in the UK by a rate of five to one.

There are not only far more Britons drawing benefits in these countries than vice versa. The benefits elsewhere in Europe are also much more generous than in the UK. For example, a Briton in France receives more than three times as much as a jobless French person in the UK.

The research was published after the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, visited London this month for talks with the prime minister, David Cameron, who is campaigning to “reform” EU freedom of movement as part of his attempt to rewrite the terms of Britain’s EU membership before putting the issue to a referendum in 2017, if he is still in power.

In Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, France and Ireland the number of Britons banking unemployment cheques is almost three times as high as the nationals of those countries receiving parallel UK benefits, with 23,011 Britons to 8,720 nationals of those nine countries in the UK.

“Thirty thousand people, or 2.5% of all British nationals, in other EU member states means that the overwhelming majority of Brits abroad as well as European citizens in Britain are not an undue burden for the countries in which they live,” said Dr Roxana Barbulescu, researcher on international migration at the University of Sheffield.

The pattern of Britons being treated generously in Scandinavia and northern Europe goes into reverse around the poorer south, with Italians, Spanish and Portuguese out of work in the UK outnumbering the unemployed Britons in those countries by 13,580 to 5,670.

But, with the number of Britons in Spain three times that of Spaniards in Britain, and given the demographic differences between these two groups of migrants, the pressure on Spain’s finances is most likely to be on its health service.

Free movement

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission president, told the Guardian in December that Cameron could tinker with British law on social security and migrant rights, but that enshrining discrimination in EU law was a no-go area.

British officials concede that the government may have run up against the limits of what it can accomplish with domestic legislation and would need changes at EU level.

Merkel has made plain to Cameron what senior diplomats in Brussels describe as her “red lines” – the untouchability of freedom of movement.

“It’s going to be a very, very hard act [for Cameron] to pull off,” said a diplomat. “The Germans have set their red lines. Others are saying: ‘We’re not changing things just to suit [Britain].’”

Mediation of the British issue will fall to Donald Tusk, the president of the Council.

The former Polish prime minister will be less than keen to agree concessions affecting the many Poles in Britain – at 15,000, the biggest single EU nationality drawing UK jobseeker’s allowance, against just two Britons recorded as receiving Polish unemployment benefits.

The task will get harder in 2015 if, as many predict, Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, who is a right-wing nationalist, becomes Poland’s prime minister.

Commenting on the research, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender equality, V?ra Jourová, said:

“Free movement of our citizens is essential to the European Union. It is a fundamental right and an asset to our union. Free movement of people – to work, live and travel in other EU countries – is at the core of having a strong single market and it benefits our economy and society. Abuse weakens free movement. Therefore, member states need to tackle abuse decisively where it happens and EU rules provide the tools to do this.”

According to government figures, there are 2.7 million EU nationals in Britain and 1.3 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU.

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