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Immigration

Report: EU questions legality of German rules on welfare for immigrants

A leading newspaper has reported that the European Commission considers Germany's rules on migrant welfare claims to be illegal under EU law. This coincides with a debate on the issue within Germany's ruling coalition.

European Commission criticizes German rules

The Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on Friday that it had obtained a European Commission document criticizing Germany's policies defining the circumstances when migrants have the right to claim its unemployment or underemployment social welfare allowance, known as Hartz IV.

The Commission was commenting on an ongoing case at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, where a 24-year-old woman from Romania is arguing that she should not have been refused the payments.

According to the Süddeutsche report, which paraphrases the Commission's comments without quoting any, Brussels considered it illegal under EU law to automatically disqualify immigrants from benefits. The German labor ministry has said it favors such an approach because of the cost and time that might be required to check cases individually.

Possible impact on coalition argument

Romania and Bulgaria, EU members since 2007, were granted the freedom of movement rights enjoyed by most EU citizens on January 1. This change has prompted a sometimes acrimonious debate within Germany's new governing coalition - between the Bavarian CSU, sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, and the Social Democrats. Bavaria's conservatives have advocated stricter rules on intra-EU immigration, citing concerns about "poverty migration." The Social Democrats, meanwhile, have argued that Germany benefits from the comparatively free movement within the bloc.

Merkel's Christian Democrats have sought to remain largely neutral in the debate, but the coalition set up a new committee earlier this week to investigate the issue, a move broadly seen as an attempt to defuse the argument.

EU rules currently allow countries to withhold unemployment benefits to immigrants during their first 90 days in the country, Germany started using this exemption period in 2012.

Resident since 2010

The young mother in question is not a new arrival in Germany, but had no record of employment since her arrival in 2010. According to the Süddeutsche report, she had lived in the eastern city of Leipzig with her sister, claiming the available children's allowance for her son, but was refused Hartz IV unemployment payments at the local job center. She took the matter to court in Leipzig, and last June, the German judges referred the case to the European Court of Justice.

As such, the woman's case is not an exact example of the issues being debated in Berlin and Munich. Still, the Süddeutsche quoted a professor of law as saying that any ruling in her favor could at least improve the chances of jobseekers coming to Germany and hoping to claim Hartz IV - if only because they might win the right for an independent appraisal of their case.

The immigration issue has become sufficiently prominent in recent weeks that public broadcaster ARD focused on it in its monthly "DeutschlandTrend" political poll, published on Friday.

Majorites of around 70 percent of the participants agreed with two statements on the issue: one saying that "our economy needs qualified workers from other countries," and the other saying that "immigrants from EU countries who are not seeking a job should be made to leave the country again."

Statistics currently suggest that an above-average number of Romanians and Bulgarians in Germany have jobs compared to other migrant groups. Advocates of tougher rules counter that this is the case because until January 1, Germany was permitted to reject some would-be migrants from the two countries. German labor agencies have said that they favor the expanded open-border policy, citing record employment figures and an aging population.

msh/pfd (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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