Over the past few decades, the focus around issues of free movement has shifted away from workers and towards EU citizenship, whereby worker status is no longer the only route opening access for EU citizens to social benefits in a host Member State. The two EU enlargements in 2004 and 2007, as well as the economic crisis, have led to a sharper discourse against intra-EU immigration amid claims that it burdens national welfare systems. Several national governments increasingly point to ‘abuses’ of the freedom of movement by some EU citizens whose goal of availing themselves of a more generous welfare system in the host Member State is termed ‘benefit tourism’. Whilst the European Commission and many experts defend the current EU rules on free movement and social coordination as providing effective instruments to combat abusive behaviour, several Member States, as well as representatives of local communities, have called for a strengthening of intra-EU immigration rules, such as the introduction of a re-entry ban for EU citizens who have abused free movement provisions.
The terms ‘abuse’ and ‘benefit tourism’ are often used not to refer to any abusive behaviour but rather to the exercise of free movement rights as allowed under the current legal framework. It seems that the criticism directed towards the consequences of intra-EU immigration on national welfare systems refers to the residence and benefits rights of economically inactive persons, demanding a conceptual change in the EU rules in order to deter ‘poverty immigration’. At the centre of the debate are therefore the access of EU citizens seeking work in another Member State to jobseeker’s allowances and housing benefits; low-income workers’ rights to supplementary benefits and child allowances, even for children not living with them in the host Member State; and pensioners’ rights to claim a supplement to their lower pensions received from their Member State of origin. All these rights granted to EU migrants are seen by many as being at odds with the main limitation imposed on the freedom of movement for economically inactive citizens: self-sufficiency, i.e. having sufficient means so as to not to place an unreasonable burden on the national social assistance system, and sickness insurance. The Court of Justice of the EU has been criticised for having allegedly overstretched the free movement provisions, and so some Member States are calling for a change to the EU rules. This change would make both residence and access to benefits of those EU migrants unable to support themselves in the host Member State dependent on strict conditions, including e.g. waiting times before being entitled to certain benefits. In this context experts have proposed a compensatory mechanism, according to which the Member State of origin would reimburse the host Member State for the costs arising from benefits paid to economically inactive citizens and jobseekers.
Conversely, those defending current free movement rules point to a lack of reliable statistical evidence for the alleged ‘benefit tourism’ and ‘abuses’, and highlight the positive impact of intra-EU immigration on national economies and business. Whilst studies indeed show a low incidence of EU migrants relying on the social systems of host Member States in absolute numbers, challenges are reported at local level where the concentration of EU migrants lacking financial means presents a burden on local infrastructures. The issue of access to benefits by EU migrants is embedded in a wider discussion about solidarity in the European Union and more integrative models, such as common unemployment insurance schemes in response to uneven economic difficulties in the Member States. These questions need to be dealt with within a more far-reaching debate on the future path of European integration.