The British government is currently pushing for EU rules on freedom of movement to be changed. Prime Minister David Cameron worries that generous welfare systems are being abused by workers travelling from poorer countries to wealthier ones, bringing along their families and draining public finances. The specific details of EU reform are vague, but are rumoured to at least partially strip welfare entitlements from recent EU migrants. But do the figures add up?
The available research (see here, here, here, here, and here) suggests that EU migration is overall economically positive for host countries. EU migrants are more likely to be in employment than nationals living in the same country, and economically non-active EU migrants represent an average of less than 1% of the population in each EU Member State.
But is even one ‘welfare tourist’ one too many? We had a comment sent in by Tarquin, who said he accepts that only a relatively small percentage of EU migrants come to the UK to abuse the benefit system, but he feels that even a small percentage is too much. Why should even a small amount of abuse be tolerated?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Martin Kahanec, Scientific Director and Research Fellow from the Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI). He argued that making life more difficult for EU migrants in an effort to crack down on welfare tourism would be a case of ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’:
Well, there are albino anacondas, but that doesn’t mean that all anacondas are albino. When you are making migration policy, that policy should be targeted towards the overall group and the mean or average within that migrant population. And what the data shows is that ‘welfare tourism’ is essentially a myth. There are certainly some migrants that will tell you they are here purely for welfare benefits, but the vast, vast, vast majority of economic migrants in Europe are not driven by welfare benefits.
The research shows that EU migrants are net contributors to public finances, so if we discourage migration within Europe because of a small number of cases of abuse, then we will perversely be doing much more damage to welfare budgets than is currently caused by welfare tourism.
We also had a comment sent in by Paul, arguing that excluding recent migrants from access to benefits would amount to unfair exploitation of workers:
Why should Member States be able to take economic advantage of migrants and be allowed to shirk their responsibility to provide social welfare to individuals living within their borders? Social Europe means all European citizens should have common rights – economic and social.
Given that EU migrants contribute more to public budgets than they take out, does Paul have a point? What would Martin Kahanec say?
I very much agree with Paul on this, and I think freedom of movement is a key principle of the European Union. Certainly it has a political dimension, but it also has a very strong and important economic dimension, and freedom of movement is very helpful to Europe economically.
Migrants provide the EU with a layer of population that is very, very mobile, and these migrants go precisely to where labour markets need them, and to sectors and occupations where their skills are otherwise missing. So they enhance economic prosperity in Europe, and on top of this these migrants are net contributors to public finance. So, to exclude some of them – and precisely recent migrants, who are the most mobile – is counter-productive. They go precisely to those sectors where they are most needed, and so their contribution to the receiving countries economies and public finance is positive, and I do not see any reason to exclude them.
Are EU reforms needed to crack down on abuse of welfare systems? Or is so-called ‘welfare tourism’ a myth? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Manuel