In observance of the International Migrants Day, Dec 18
Even before 2004, when eight central and eastern European countries (including Poland) joined the European Union (EU), there were fears that citizens from these Member States would flood the more affluent western European countries, placing a burden on their welfare systems. With two additional central and eastern European countries—Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, and restrictions on free movement of citizens from these two countries were lifted in January 2014—the debate on “welfare tourism” has heated up further, especially considering the lingering effects of the economic crisis in Europe. The arguments voiced in the debate suggest that the “new” EU mobile citizens are attracted precisely by better-quality services and easier access to those services in the more affluent western Member States.
An EU-Agency, called Eurofound, has examined the impact of intra-EU mobility on public services in nine host countries: Austria, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK. The aim of the research was not only to explore whether there was any evidence supporting the welfare magnet hypothesis, but also to reveal if there were difficulties with the societal inclusion of these mobile citizens. It also examined what were the underlying reasons for the challenges they had to face in the host countries.
Data from host country studies confirmed previous findings that mostly young people from the EU10 countries arrived with the aim of working and achieving higher incomes than in their countries of origin. As a consequence, their employment rate is relatively high; in Italy, Ireland and the UK it is even higher than that of the native population. Since, however, the “new” EU citizens tend to be employed in those sectors where migrant workers are concentrated (construction and agriculture), they became vulnerable after the crisis: in many countries their unemployment rate became higher than that of the native population.
The conclusion of the report was that overall EU10 citizens’ take-up of welfare benefits and public services in the host countries is lower than that of the native population. This is especially the case in relation to disability and sickness benefits as well as pensions. The take-up of unemployment benefits or in-work benefits, however, tends to be higher than that of natives in most of those countries where data/estimates are available.
Access to benefits even for eligible EU10 citizens could be problematic because of difficulties with navigating in the often complicated social welfare system due to lack of information and language knowledge. The EU should play a more proactive role in helping host MSs to systematically support language learning. This is needed also for facilitating EU mobile citizens’ social inclusion. Such an investment could help not only in easing local tensions, but through smoother integration, also more convincingly arguing against perceptions on welfare tourism, which are not based on evidence.