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Immigration

Berlin wants EU action against welfare abuse

Germany's interior minister has blocked the full accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen zone, warning of the threat posed by economic refugees. But the European Commission sees no reason to act.

More than anything else, Hans-Peter Friedrich has brought complaints to Brussels: complaints about the alleged prematurity of Romanian and Bulgarian full membership to the Schengen area, and complaints about immigration poverty from the two EU countries. He said he wanted to deal with these as two separate issues in Brussels, although the public perception is that they have become blurred. Romania and Bulgaria now feel snubbed - especially by Germany. Both want to join the border control-free Schengen area, but have seen their efforts rebuffed for years. After Thursday's (07.03.2013) meeting of EU interior ministers, the two countries are not any closer to their goal.

Schengen accession postponed indefinitely

Shield on Bulgaria's border to Turkey
(Photo: AP Photo / Valentina Petrova)

Too much corruption - or too many Roma?

Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov reiterated his country's position, "Bulgaria meets all criteria for Schengen accession." It's a view Romanian officials have also expressed. In terms of the technical security of Schengen borders, this is hardly disputed. But some states are complaining that the technical and organizational side counts for little as long as the two countries tolerate corruption and shortcomings in their judicial systems. Here, Friedrich said he continues to see "vulnerabilities that do not put us in a position to say 'Now away with border controls.'"

The German minister added that it was not about polemics, but rather "a statement of fact that many of my colleagues share." He seems to be right, even if nobody is leaning out the window as far as Friedrich.

Swiss Justice and Police Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, whose country is not part of the EU but is a Schengen member, was more conciliatory but gave her support to Friedrich, "We understand these critical voices, but also the two states that are now showing considerable frustration." She said the decisive factor would be a solution by which the Schengen borders were protected, because "we need to ensure that the whole system remains credible."

Friedrich calls for re-entry ban

It was mainly Friedrich who addressed the issue of "poverty immigration" in Brussels. Many German cities, he said, complain about the immigration of thousands of people from Romania and Bulgaria, many of whom are Roma. He said they form ghettos and are often mainly interested in claiming state benefits.

"Does freedom of movement in Europe mean that people anywhere in Europe who believe that they can live better on welfare in Germany than in their own countries, will be coming to Germany?" Friedrich asked, adding that was a situation ministers could not let happen.

Friedrichsaid there could be a further increase in immigration to Germany when the full freedom of movement for Bulgarians and Romanians comes into effect in 2014. Every EU citizen is entitled to take up work in any other EU country. But it would be an abuse of freedom of movement, "if someone goes to another country just to get its welfare."

Legally, however, this is not possible under current rules. For an extended stay in another EU country, visitors must show they have work or a regular income. Friedrichis now proposing a "re-entry ban" of one or two years for people deemed to have entered the country only to claim welfare benefits. Such re-entry bans currently only apply to those found guilty of serious crimes.

European Commission sees no problem

epa03613242 German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich (L) chats with his Austrian counterpart Johanna Mikl Leitner (R)
(Photo: EPA/Olivier Hoslet)

Friedrich is supported by Austria's Johanna Mikl-Leitner

His suggestions, however, have met with considerable criticism. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has said it does not need to address so-called "welfare tourism" as it is not an actual problem but rather falsely perceived as one in some EU nations.

Others have accused Friedrich of connecting the Schengen issue with economic refugees, although the two are not directly related. Josef Winkler, spokesman for refugee policy of the Green group in the European Parliament, wrote in response to Friedrich's proposals that it was "irresponsible" to link allegations of welfare abuse with Bulgaria and Romania's membership in the Schangen zone. Roma would become "scapegoats for the faltering Schengen accession negotiations," Winkler added.

Friedrich can show some support for his apprehension. Britain, the Netherlands and Austria also expressed concern about increased immigration. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner considers it most important "that people can find good local living conditions" so that they do not leave their homes.