Shortly after assuming power in May 2010, the government of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron began setting caps on immigration levels, ultimately promising to reduce net migration into the U.K. to fewer than 100,000 people per year by the 2015 general election. The focus on immigration was unsurprising; migration is highly politicized, particularly near elections and during economic crises. But the overlooked and crucial question was how effective a cap on immigration could be given the European Union’s free movement provisions. The U.K. could indeed limit non-EU immigration by decreasing the number of visas issued. However, there was not much that the government could do to control the numbers of EU migrants who came to the U.K.
The neglect of intra-EU migration was short-lived. With the full lifting of labor market restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens in January 2014 came debates about EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits. Apocalyptic predictions that waves of migrants from these two countries would flood other EU labor markets and take advantage of their public services have largely failed to materialize. Nevertheless, in March 2014, the U.K. introduced new provisions: EU migrants can only access out-of-job benefits if their earnings have been equivalent to about $250 per week for three months, and EU migrants are no longer eligible for housing benefits.
These kinds of measures are by no means limited to the U.K. There has been a backlash against EU migrants in other countries too. In Belgium, the government sent letters to 2,712 EU citizens residing in the country—mainly Romanians, Bulgarians, Spaniards and Italians—asking them to leave, saying that they were putting a strain on the welfare system. This is not the first time such letters have been sent, but their numbers have more than tripled in the past three years. The Belgian government has justified its actions on the basis of a 2004 European directive on free movement, which states that persons residing in another member state should not become an unreasonable burden on social services.
In Germany, the lifting of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians caused a rift in the ruling coalition. Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s prime minister and leader of the Christian Social Union, called for the expulsion of EU migrants who abuse the country’s welfare system. He was rebuked by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who emphasized that questioning the EU’s freedom of movement could be harmful for the country because the German economy largely benefits from migrants’ contributions.
Despite these disagreements, Germany has introduced new conditions for EU migrants to qualify for Hartz IV unemployment and welfare benefits. A high-profile case was brought to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) by a 24-year-old Romanian woman who was denied Hartz IV benefits. The ECJ’s advocate general has stated that Germany could potentially deny benefits if it suspects cases of “welfare tourism,” but a final ruling is still pending. This case has become a bone of contention between Germany and the European Commission; the commission argues that Germany’s actions are incompatible with EU law and informed by populist politics.
The emphasis on EU migrants and their access to benefits is symptomatic of at least two sets of issues. On one hand, there is the economic crisis and the need for governments to be seen as delivering protections to their domestic constituencies. Even though the spotlight is on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, there is also a considerable increase in emigration from Spain, Italy and Greece, where the economic crisis has hit hardest. In Germany in particular it is commonplace to hear claims that the country is bearing the brunt of the eurozone crisis, and that it should not be responsible for solving the social problems of other EU countries. This discourse cannot be divorced from the backlash against EU migrants, which largely overlooks evidence that the majority of migrants are gainfully employed and contribute positively to the welfare system.
On the other hand, the question of individual member states’ sovereignty in relation to EU-level governance, as well as domestic perceptions of this issue, serves to frame domestic politics. In the case of benefits, there are concerns about lack of state control over an essential policy area such as migration. In the U.K., the inability to control EU migration has led to discussions of setting a cap on EU migrants, which would require a renegotiation of free movement provisions with the EU. This option is portrayed as a way of regaining sovereignty back from Brussels, regardless of whether it would actually be possible to backtrack on free movement. This issue cannot be separated from wider developments, for instance in terms of promises of a U.K. referendum on EU membership; growing support for the populist right-wing U.K. Independence Party; or even the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, in which the Scottish National Party government is trying to set itself apart from Westminster on immigration and the EU as part of its campaign. The EU as a system of governance, together with the saliency of migration policy, allow for the exploitation of discrepancies and tensions to cultivate domestic political agendas.
The more uncertain issue, however, concerns the implications that the introduction of restrictions on access to welfare benefits will have on the application of EU legislation in the member states. The actions of the U.K., Belgian and German governments have already elicited strong responses from the European Commission in a battle over competencies. Nonetheless, member states are resorting to interpretations of EU legislation and established divisions of competencies to justify their actions: Belgium by referring to the 2004 European directive, and Germany by emphasizing that social welfare decisions are under national jurisdiction. It remains to be seen whether the focus on EU migrants will backfire on national governments, or whether it will lead to a review of established EU practices, particularly given the results of the European Parliament elections, in which EU immigration is seen as one of the issues that informed the sharp rise in support for Euroskeptic, right-wing parties.
Nur Abdelkhaliq is a researcher at the Politics and International Relations department, University of Edinburgh, U.K. She has also worked as consultant on labor migration for the International Organization for Migration. Her publications focus on European immigration policy and politics, EU-Mediterranean relations, and the internal organizational dynamics of the European Commission.