Open Europe Blog

Viviane Reding

In a few weeks time, the transitional restrictions on citizens from Bulgaria and Romania gaining full access to all EU member states’ labour markets will expire. As we have covered in our press summaries and on our blog, it’s not just in the UK where this has led to political upheaval.

Last week, European Commissioner Viviane Reding finally responded to concerns expressed by the UK, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands back in April about benefit tourism in the EU. Although she was right when saying that “free movement is a right to free circulation; it is not a right to migrate in member states’ social security systems”, her actual policy proposals aren’t terribly convincing.

In order to crack down on the abuse, the Commission proposes:

– a handbook to help local authorities spot sham marriages as well as guidelines on habitual residency, which would determine the extent to which a person is entitled to draw benefits in a host EU country (in other words, more intervention into national policy)

– helping local authorities understand EU free movement rules

– topping up the European Social Fund

That throwing more money at the problem isn’t going to improve things shouldn’t need to be said, especially given the sorrow state of the EU budget. The UK, is according to EU officials, “very disappointed with the scale and ambition”, while German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich reacted by saying, “To launch discussions or to develop brochures won’t suffice”.

Hans-Peter Friedrich

What Germany will do next most likely depends on how smoothly the “second accession” of Romania and Bulgaria in January goes, but in any case the German coalition deal doesn’t leave any room for doubt that it is determined to do something about it if problems arise.

Friedrich has threatened to work with other governments “outside the structures of the EU” if the Commission doesn’t respond adequately to concerns about welfare tourism – another signal that Germany is ready to resort to intergovernmentalism as it has signalled it will do with the banking union, at least for now.

Dutch Interior Minister Lodewijk Asscher, who has been making many similar noises to the UK and Germany, thinks that more Romanians and Bulgarians will come to the Netherlands than has been predicted. He said, “The official predictions are low, but earlier predictions weren’t correct either.”

He added that he would have liked to extend restrictions for Romania and Bulgaria, but “if you have an agreement with other countries, you should stick to it”. However, local authorities in the Dutch cities of Rotterdam and The Hague are reportedly ready to defy EU law by denying tax or social security numbers to Romanians or Bulgarians who fail to pass housing and employment checks.

Meanwhile, today, UK Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has announced that new migrants will be asked to prove that their English language skills will be no barrier to them finding employment in Britain, under plans to strengthen the UK’s Habitual Residence/Right to Reside Test. The Dutch coalition agreement already states that “Individuals who cannot speak Dutch will not receive social assistance benefit. This principle will be applied consistently: to EU nationals, third-country nationals and Dutch nationals.”

The European Commission’s run-ins with the UK, over the ‘right to reside test’, and Germany, following which Friedrich accused Commissioner Reding of “ignorance“, highlight the level animosity its approach has caused.

The EU Treaty doesn’t need to be re-written to deal with this issue. We’ve made a few suggestions here that the Commission would do well to engage with it if it really cares about maintaining support for free movement in Europe.

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