Does the German social welfare system contravene European law? The EU seems to think so. It has made a statement regarding the rights of migrants that has caused quite a stir in Germany.
Christian Social Union (CSU) General Secretary Andreas Scheuer has called the EU Commission's statement making the rounds in German newspapers since Friday (10.01.2013) "Eurocratic madness." The document has been interpreted as claiming that Germany should not be permitted to deny immigrants from the EU welfare assistance.
The EU Commission's statement has poured fuel on the fire of a raging national debate in Germany about migrants from less prosperous EU countries coming to the country and claiming benefits. The Bavaria-based CSU - the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) - has been flaunting its views with the slogan "those who commit fraud will be [kicked] out," claiming that migrant workers could exploit German welfare programs.
The Commission's statements were made in reference to a case currently being conducted at the European Court of Justice concerning a Romanian woman and her son. The two have been living in Germany since 2010 but have been denied unemployment and social benefits.
"Not a self-service store"
The CSU has made the idea that Germans and EU-foreigners receive the same unemployment benefits a central part of its election campaign. Bavarian state elections are scheduled for March and elections for the European Parliament will be held in May.
To that effect, the CSU's General Secretary Scheuer expressed himself clearly: "The German social welfare system is not a self-service convenience store for all the Europeans that come to our country," he said on Friday in Munich. He expressed his shock at how the "EU Commission is frivolously torpedoing the national social security system."
"If bureaucrats in their deluxe offices at the EU Commission in Brussels think they can interfere with our national social security system, then there will be fierce resistance from the CSU," Scheuer added.
A sensitive subject for Germany's new coalition government
Back in Berlin, the still fresh coalition agreement between Merkel's CDU, the CSU and the SPD includes an entire chapter on integration and immigration.
But, it expresses the new government's policy in a rather vague way: "We want to safeguard acceptance of the EU's freedom of movement policy. Therefore, we will counteract unwarranted claims by EU citizens for social welfare benefits."
The document does not explain how the government would 'counteract' such claims, however. A working group with members from different government ministries is set to clarify the issue in the coming months.
Denial from Brussels
Asked about the issue, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert emphasized that decisions about social legislation are a national matter, and that the current practice of restricting social welfare for immigrants would be retained for the time being. He repeatedly dodged the question of how the government, or even Chancellor Angela Merkel, had reacted to the EU Commission's statement.
The EU Commission on Friday backpeddled, denying its previous statements. It published a clarification stating that Germany certainly does not have to grant benefits to all unemployed EU citizens. Any information to the contrary is, "of course completely false," said EU Commission spokewoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen.
EU Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding had already told an EU interior ministers meeting on December 5, 2013 that the freedom of movement for workers does not automatically equate with a claim to welfare benefits.
Strict Brits, generous Dutch
Many of the 28 EU member countries have unclear legislation on the issue. In Britain, there are very strict checks to determine whether or not a migrant qualifies for benefits. By contrast, the Netherlands is rather accommodating. In official EU documents, Finland states that social assistance is really only a last resort and that each individual case is decided by local authorities.
What all EU countries have in common, however, is that after five years of contiguous residency EU citizens can apply for welfare assistance in the country where they are living. The EU Commission also pointed out that any municipalities with financial difficulties can apply to the European Commission for financial aid to cope with any influx of EU citizens.
Strain on German cities
But that statement has not quieted Ulrich Maly, president of the German Association of Cities and mayor of Nuremberg. Cities in Germany, he noted, bear the responsibility of paying social welfare benefits.
"No one is opposed to freedom of movement," he told DW, but emphasized that the European Union is not a social union. The EU has left social policies up to the individual member states, Maly said, and that has to stay that way as long as benefits are so vastly different.