29 April 2016

Unemployed EU migrants vs in-work benefits

There’s been a bit of a buzz around the proposals put forward by Germany’s Labour Minister, Andrea Nahles (of the centre-left SPD) to exclude EU migrants from social welfare benefits for five years. Given the various domestic reforms and UK-EU negotiations about EU migrants’ access to benefits, the inevitable question is whether the German plans are tougher than the British system. The short answer is that these German plans are no more stringent than what the UK already has in place, and much less so once Universal Credit is adopted nationwide in the UK. They are nothing to  do with the UK debate about access to ‘in-work’ benefits.

The reforms proposed by Nahles apply solely to unemployed EU migrants which – and this is the crucial part – are not/have not actively seeking/sought employment. If you go to Germany as an EU migrant looking for job you’re entitled to some form of social assistance for a certain amount of time, as long as you can prove that you’re looking for employment.

Under the current UK system, introduced under domestic reforms in 2014, EU migrants are not entitled to benefits for the first three months and can only claim Income-based jobseekers’ allowance after six months in the UK if they have a genuine chance of finding work (the definition of ‘genuine chance’ has also been tightened up). Under the UK’s new Universal Credit system, EU jobseekers will be able to claim it.

German court ruling changes debate

In the UK, if an EU migrant is unemployed and not seeking work, they’re not entitled to anything. However, in Germany, the country’s highest  social court in Kasel, the Federal Social Court (BSG)  ruled in December last year that all EU citizens have the right to social assistance (minimum subsistence grants, in line with unemployment benefit) if they have been living in Germany for over six months – regardless of your status as a jobseeker. So basically, if you are unemployed, not looking for a job and have little prospect of getting one – you are still entitled to state benefit as long as you’ve been in Germany for over six months. That’s certainly not the case in the UK.

The Kasel Court’s ruling caused a backlack from local authorities, who feared the social system would be stretched to its limit. The purpose of Nahles’ reforms is to override the decision by the German court.  Under her plan you cannot, as an unemployed EU migrant receive such benefits until you’ve been living in Germany for five years, instead of six months. Nahles’ draft also stipulates that EU migrants who aren’t eligible for social assistance any longer will get “transition benefits” for a maximum of four weeks (to cover costs of housing, food and health care.) They will also be given a loan to cover costs for a return trip to their home country.

Of course Nahles is talking it up as getting tough on “welfare tourism,” but that’s classic politicking. What she’s proposing really isn’t that radical. However, in the German context the Greens have already attacked her for sorting EU citizens between “good and bad.”

We have to stop immigration into the social security system.

Andrea Nahles, German Labour Minister (SPD)

Welcome intervention on ‘welfare tourism’?

Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU is likely to get on board with such reforms, they have already showed much interest, for instance, in the in-work welfare reforms secured by Britain in its EU reform package – particularly in the indexing of child benefit. The numbers of EU migrants claiming social benefits in Germany are at high-levels (440,000 in January, for instance), so there is a legitimate debate to be had.

The German commentariat have certainly welcomed the move. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s domestic affairs editor Jasper von Altenbockum argued today that the proposed reforms “takes the thunder from a legitimate mood that immigration is often not driven by commitment [to work] but by incentives of national welfare systems,” adding, however, that “this does not undermine the appreciation of EU free movement but instead supports it.” Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Editor Jan Bielicki wrote, “Europe’s poverty issues will not be solved by the poor migrating into social welfare [systems]. Therefore it is good that Labour Minister Andrea Nahles now clarifies that there can be no social benefits for new [EU] migrants without jobs.”

Overall, as we’ve long argued, the basic point still stands that, free movement and social welfare systems should not be conflated and there is an increasing  desire from all EU governments to ensure that welfare should be the domain of national governments, in order to uphold public confidence in free movement of workers.