By Ian Loumos
On March 7th European Union member state justices and interior ministers voted to indefinitely postpone Romania and Bulgaria’s accession into the Schengen area’s border-free zone. The latest decision to deny these Balkan states the same rights of movement in the Schengen zone as older member states draws attention to questions of power distribution within the EU.
Hans Peter Friedrich, Germany’s interior minister spearheaded the call to block Bulgaria and Romania’s previously agreed-upon Schengen zone entry date of January 1, 2014. Regulations hold that accession into the Schengen zone “requires a unanimous vote by all EU member states.”
In an interview with Der Spiegel prior to Thursday’s meeting in Brussels, Friedrich stated that “the right to freedom of movement means that every citizen of the EU can remain in any member state where he or she studies or works. Any EU citizen who fulfills that condition is welcome [in Germany]. But those who only come to receive social welfare, and thus abuse the freedom of movement–they must be effectively prevented from doing so.”
Friedrich has cited multiple reasons behind the decision to block the two Balkan nations from receiving the same freedom of movement as other EU members. The minister asserted that both nations “still have to be more decisive in the fight against corruption,adding that “there are still weaknesses, especially when it comes to the reliability of the justice system, which prevents us from being able to say: Remove the border controls now.”
As Der Spiegel discusses, the real bone of contention behind this line of reasoning (shared by other EU member states) is the controversial notion of “poverty migration” (used in Germany) or “benefits tourism”(used in the UK). Essentially, it holds that citizens of economically unstable and developing nations will migrate to economically secure, functional member states in order to “take advantage of their social welfare systems.”
The term initially gained attention upon the release of a recent position paper by the German Association of Cities. That report outlines the financial challenges facing Germany’s urban areas, specifically the growing amount of welfare support that has been allocated to assist impoverished immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, particularly those who identified themselves as part of the Roma minority.
At the March 7th meeting, Friedrich asked, “does freedom of movement mean we have to assume that people from all over Europe who believe that they can live better on welfare in Germany than they can in their own countries, will come to Germany?” He then asserted that “this danger cannot be allowed to come true,” expanding on a more Statist logic that “the freedom of movement must be protected against abuse.”
The meeting was adjourned with the decision to indefinitely postpone the date of Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the Schengen area. It ended with a promise to further review the Balkan republics’ progress towards membership; the issue is expected to be addressed again at the end of the year.
These developments have been met with staunch criticism on the basis of not holding sufficient evidence to prove that “poverty migration” is a social phenomenon that warrants the alarmraised by member states such as Germany. European Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd remarked “it is a non problem. It does not exist. There is a perception in some member states that has no grounding in reality.”
A number of statisticians have also voiced skepticism over claims which support the notion of “social tourism.” One study asserted that 80 percent of Bulgarians and Romanians, who came to Germany after joining the EU in 2007, are working, 46 percent of which are qualified and 22 percent considered highly qualified.
As for the leadership of the counries in question, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta commented on Saturday that “his country’s inclusion in the zone was no longer a priority for his government.” The Romanian representative in Brussels suggests “poverty in Romania and Bulgaria is the real reason behind the reluctance of older EU member states to let the two Balkan countries into the Schengen zone.”
Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tesvetanov stressed that he “intends to maintain a constructive open and transparent dialogue and to look for a common solution.”
The United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and The Netherlands agreed on Thursday to issue a joint letter to the European Commission, demanding “it addresses their shared concerns over potential abuse of their social security systems by other EU member states.”
The coming debate within both the European parliament and European society at large will focus on the extent to which individual member states may have the legal authority under the current European constitution to limit the amount of basic social benefits accessible to foreign nationals. The impact this particular issue may have on the union could be tremendous as it questions the fundamental grounds of what it means to entertain EU membership and status.
Ian Loumos is an intern at the EastWest Institute’s New York Center.