Germany plans 5-year benefit ban for jobless migrants

May 6, 2016

The disintegration of EU solidarity seems to be accelerating. Germany is planning to ban EU migrants from most unemployment benefits for five years after their arrival in dramatic response to rightwing populist assaults on chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policies.

It is a sign of how much the rise of support for the right-wing populist ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) is shaking German politics that the proposals for the benefits ban comes from Andrea Maria Nahles, a leftwing social democrat and currently Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs. The SPD is suffering even more than Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc in the face of the AfD’s advance. Opinion polls show it around 20 per cent, an all-time low.

The proposals, which are far tougher than had been expected even a few months ago, highlight the government’s concern over growing public anxiety about immigration and the related electoral growth of of the Alternative for Germany party, the most popular rightwing grouping since the second world war.

Most of the German debate has focused on the influx of one million refugees from outside Europe, but there is also a high level of concern about the arrival of poor migrants from eastern European EU members — notably Romanians and Bulgarians — whose numbers soared after they secured full access to the bloc’s labour market in 2014.

“I full and clearly support freedom of movement [of workers in the EU],” said labour minister Andrea Nahles, detailing the plans. “But freedom of access to social welfare is something else.”

The far-left Left party has accused Nahles of sorting EU citizens into “good and bad” and of trying to “strengthen her own party with rightwing populism.” It said: “If you think positively about Europe, you must develop European solutions instead of cutting yourself off.”

Government figures show 440,000 EU immigrants claimed benefits in January, with the biggest groups from Poland, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. However, the numbers include people doing low-paid work and claiming top-up benefits. They would not be affected by the proposals, which are limited to the jobless.

If adopted, the five-year curb would supersede a German Federal Services Court ruling from December that jobless EU migrants were entitled to some social benefits after six months. The judgment triggered fears among the local authorities that distribute most social welfare about growing benefits bills. They had been interpreting the rules flexibly and often granting unemployment benefits to EU migrants after periods much longer than six months.

Ms Nahles on Thursday insisted the new law would only codify existing practice. She was not changing the rules but closing “a loophole”, she said.

However, the five-year limit is new — and much longer than was under consideration earlier this year. When Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg and leading SPD figure, made headlines in January suggesting a one-year limit even that seemed tough to many social democrats.

European social democracy is trapped and seems to be slowly dying. The structure and rules of the eurozone system preclude it from being able to defend the interests of its working class constituency and as a result it has left a large political space for the growth of populist movements which combine leftist economic and social policies with anti-immigrant xenophobia. It is a sign of its political decay that on a real issues, such as how to manage immigration, the SPD is only capable of ‘me too’ policies as it is drawn onto political terrain defined by the new populist right wing.

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