The end of the transitional arrangements restricting free movement of European citizens from Bulgaria and Romania on 1 January 2014 has triggered a fierce debate about the aim and purpose of the European Union and has stirred fears of mass ‘poverty’ migration within the EU. Emerging from the debate are various propositions including limiting the number of migrants, repatriating competencies back to national governments, and restricting EU competencies to core areas such as free trade.
The Treaty of Rome, signed by the initial member states in 1957, defined European integration as a political project with the aim of “an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”. It was the hope of the founding fathers to overcome Europe’s fragmentation and build an institutional framework that would promote peace on a continent that had been devastated twice by war during the first half of the 20th Century. Hence, since its beginning, EU integration has aimed to achieve the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and workers among member states and was always intended to be more than purely a trade bloc.
With the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, EU citizenship became a constituent part of EU integration. Although the movement of people was initially limited to workers (and later to economically active people), the Maastricht Treaty in principle granted all EU citizens the freedom to move and reside in any EU member state, a right subsequently codified in Directive 2004/38/EC. Although transitional arrangements regarding the freedom to move and reside were applied to workers from the new Member States joining in 2004 (A8) and in 2007 (A2), the decision to expand the EU to countries of the former Eastern Bloc entailed a commitment to accord EU citizenship to all nationals from those countries.
Until the early 2000s intra-EU migration was relatively low, on average accounting for less than two percent of the population, and only after the accession of the A8 countries in 2004 did it increase significantly. According to OECD data, for example, the stock of Polish-born residents in Britain increased from 229.000 in 2006 to 617.000 in 2011and in Germany from 719.000 in 2005 to 1.1 million in 2011 (OECD 2013: 366; 376). Despite these considerable increases after 2004, the ratio of EU migrants to the overall population still remains relatively low in both Britain and Germany. In addition, we should note that the overwhelming majority of migration to the UK is from outside the EU.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that migration from EU member states has been negligible, especially as new migrants tend to cluster in certain sectors of the economy and in geographical areas. Data on National Insurance Number registrations in the UK, for example, indicate that in 2011/12 42 percent of all migrants to the UK including those from the EU initially settled in London (DWP 2012). Similarly, a relatively high proportion of Bulgarians migrating to Germany have moved to Berlin. Undoubtedly, these migration patterns can amplify, or lead to, regional and local shortages of public and social service provision and impact local labour markets. Yet these challenges do not mean that at the macro level migration has fundamentally negative effects or that EU migrant citizens intend to or do exploit the system.
Although integral to the essence of European citizenship, entitlements to social rights across borders are frequently conceptualised as a threat by national citizens (Anderson 2013), as their own options of work and recourse to welfare protections come under perceived pressure. Contemporary political and media debates concerning access to social rights for citizens from other EU member states living in Britain, for example, are heavily peppered with terms such as ‘welfare tourism’ (Bragg and Feldman 2011); ‘welfare state incentives’, and references to the crisis inherent in having created the welfare ‘honey pot’ of Europe.
Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown fuelled the debate with respect to work with his infamous slogan “British jobs for British workers”, first articulated at the 2007 Labour Party conference. However, it should be noted that the more populist political debates seem to be largely unrelated to actual migration flows — according to our own preliminary media analysis, the frenzied debate in Britain about European immigration only really came to the fore after the formation of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010. Currently, however, the ‘benefit tourism’ rhetoric surrounding European migration, suggesting that a significant number of EU migrants only come to Britain to take advantage of the ‘generous’ British welfare state, spans the political spectrum and is as likely to be heard from the mouth of the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, as it is from Conservative politicians such as Prime Minister David Cameron or their opponents in the Labour Party.
More recently, the Christian Social Union in Germany (the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democratic Party of Angela Merkel and a member of the coalition government) has stepped up its rhetoric in the run-up to the Bavarian local and European elections in Spring 2014. Terms such as ‘poverty-driven migration’ and the need to protect welfare provision against ‘abuse’ typify the debate in Germany. In both countries, although rather more restrained in Germany than Britain, political and media discourses feed off each other to generate a rhetoric bordering on hysteria which entices and arguably celebrates xenophobia and which is founded on logic which bears no resemblance to reality.
And it is perhaps the realities and fundamental benefits of EU migration that, as two significant economies at the centre of Europe, Britain and Germany need reminding of. The reality is that intra-EU migration provides a vital labour market adjustment mechanism to economic and social imbalances as well as asymmetric shocks within the EU. The reality is that EU migrants are on average highly skilled young workers and member states can significantly benefit from such migration, as evidenced by the recent increase in the migration of qualified workers from southern European countries, such as Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, to countries of northern Europe. The reality is that in countries faced with skill shortages, as is currently the case in Germany, migrant workers take up jobs in the labour market that could not otherwise be filled. As a case in point, many elite universities and the financial services industry in Britain rely heavily on EU migrant workers. Conversely, emigration reduces unemployment in southern European countries hard hit by the crisis.
The reality is that in Britain EU27 migrants are less likely to be unemployed than British nationals and are less likely to rely on social benefits. According to a study by Dustmann/Frattini (2013: 28) recent EEA immigrants are more than 50% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits. Moreover, “[b]etween 2001 and 2011 recent EEA immigrants contributed 34% more to the fiscal system than they took out, with a net fiscal contribution of about 22.1 billion GBP” (Dustmann/Frattini 2013: 27). Likewise in Germany, the reality is that until recently, migrants from A2 countries on average had relatively high educational qualifications. This was partly due to the fact that workers with a university education had free access to the German labour market which, along with the public purse, profited from these migrant workers who had their education paid for elsewhere and who filled jobs requiring skilled workers. It is only more recently, with the economic crisis hitting southern Europe hard, that an increasing number of A2 migrants without any qualifications have migrated to Germany where they have been mostly employed as seasonal workers, equally as important an asset to the German economy. Nevertheless, their unemployment rate is somewhat lower than the overall average in Germany.
For 2014, it is estimated that the net migration from Bulgaria and Romania to Germany will be between 100,000 and 180,000. With respect to the receipt of social transfers, it needs to be highlighted that about 48 percent of all Germans without a migration background receive some form of social transfers, and that only about 30 percent of A2 migrants receive any social transfer, including child allowances. Overall, it is very likely that, as migrants from A2 countries on average are much younger than the domestic population, net migration will have a positive impact on the social insurance funds in the long term (Brücker et al. 2013).
EU Citizenship And Migration
EU citizenship entitles people to the freedom of movement and residence within the EU. To limit such freedom to highly skilled workers, as is suggested by some politicians, would completely undermine the concept of citizenship. Emigration to another EU member state, although essentially a political right, is inextricably linked to social rights within the EU, specifically, for example, if the alternative is long-term unemployment in the ‘home’ country.
Yet, whilst EU citizenship entails social rights, it does not provide immediate and automatic eligibility to social assistance transfers, despite all the rhetoric about ‘benefit tourism’. EU law provides for safeguards to protect host member states from unreasonable financial burdens. During the first three months, the host EU country is not obliged by EU law to grant social assistance to economically non-active EU citizens. For the time period after three months and before having been resident for five years, economically non-active EU citizens are in practice unlikely to be eligible for social assistance benefits, since to acquire the right to reside they would have initially needed to show the national authorities that they had sufficient resources (EU Commission 2013). In Germany EU migrants who are neither employees nor self-employed are not entitled to means-tested unemployment benefits (Arbeitslosengeld II) during the first three months after arrival (Deutscher Verein für öffentliche und private Fürsorge 2103) and with effect from January 1, 2014 the British government also excludes EU migrants from the receipt of income-based jobseekers allowance during the first three months of residence in the UK. Furthermore, the government has made the ‘habitual residence test’ more stringent and will also apply it to British nationals returning to the UK (DWP 2013).
That said, the habitual residence test is an issue of contention between the EU Commission and the British government. A recent study commissioned by the European Commission claims that in 2011 67% of EU citizens in the UK were refused income-related benefits as a result of the ‘Habitual Residency and ‘Right to Reside’ tests’ (ICF GHK, 2013). The EU contends that the ‘Right to Reside’ test is discriminatory and in breach of EU law and has in 2013 filed a lawsuit against the UK at the European Court of Justice. Following the EU’s argument would suggest that many EU migrant citizens, who are under the general suspicion of being welfare tourists, are in effect disentitled by the UK government of their legitimate social rights!
A further area of contention in relation to migration and social rights is the alleged cost to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK associated with free movement within the EU. Here, it is the lack of capacity by the state to apply existing regulations which remains an important dimension which is hardly mentioned in political debates. For example, a recent qualitative study commissioned by the Department of Health in England (Creative Research 2013) highlights the lack of knowledge among healthcare professionals within the NHS regarding who is eligible for free treatment. This has significant implications for the public purse, as considerable amounts of money are seemingly not claimed back from EU citizens’ countries of origin as should be the case under reciprocal arrangements for care across borders. Hence, before aiming to change policy for migrants, it would be advisable to train healthcare (management) professionals to more effectively recoup costs of EU patients, who use the NHS while visiting England, from their home countries’ statutory health insurance funds or NHS (Department of Health, 2013).
To be clear: the overwhelming majority of EU citizens migrate to take up work or study abroad. Such freedom of movement has incalculable benefits for sending and receiving countries. To recognise such benefits, requires a conceptual shift by individual country governments to understanding free movement as a ‘collective’ process with mutual and reciprocal benefits. Such benefits may indeed have a temporal component, meaning that the constituent members of Europe reap the benefits at different points in time – but collectively acceptance of these ebbs and flows puts the EU in a position to respond better to the vagaries of national, regional and global economies. Contrary to popular belief and political rhetoric member states are not required by EU regulation to provide social assistance transfers in the first three months after arrival to non-working migrants and they can apply a habitual residence test to avoid the mythical ‘benefit tourism’ that consumes current political debate. However, EU citizenship does bring with it certain social rights to which EU citizens are entitled. As the debate surrounding migration and rights rages on, the actual or de facto experience of exercising social rights for EU citizens residing outside of their country of origin is an important field of enquiry, which so far has not been comprehensively studied.
Together with colleagues from a number of other European institutions the authors are currently involved in a research project investigating the barriers to access social rights by EU migrants as part of the FP7 funded research programme bEUcitizen (beucitizen.eu).
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