Is U.K.’s Cameron Right to Worry About ‘Welfare Tourism’ in the E.U.?

With EU border controls set to expire for Romanians and Bulgarians in the New Year, a rising tide of anxiety about "welfare tourism" mounts in the UK. But is it a myth or is there really a horde of scroungers just itching to move in, sign on and sit back?

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Francois Lenoir / Reuters

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron addresses a news conference during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels October 25, 2013.

British Prime Minister David Cameron sparked a controversy on Nov. 26 when he announced that the British government was planning to introduce new restrictions on the claiming of welfare benefits by migrants from the other 27 member states of the European Union (E.U.). In an article for the British newspaper the Financial Times, entitled “Free movement within Europe needs to be less free,” Cameron openly questioned the decades-old principle of freedom of movement of individuals across Europe, which allows all individuals from the E.U. to live and work in each others’ countries and to enjoy the same access as nationals to social welfare provisions.

Cameron’s proposals to tighten access to welfare come in advance of the expiry of border controls for Romania and Bulgaria (two of Europe’s poorest nations) on Jan. 1, when their citizens will enjoy the same right to live and work in the U.K. as other E.U. citizens. Polling has indicated antipathy from Brits to the presumed influx — a YouGov poll from September showed that the majority of Britons now oppose the right of people who live in the E.U. to live and work wherever they want.

This is not a new issue for E.U. governments, nor is it one unique to the U.K. As the Financial Times highlighted in an editorial on Nov. 27, since the admission in 2004 of poorer countries from the former Soviet bloc to a union  that “was largely a rich countries’ club” at the time, voters from richer member states have been fearful of what is referred to in Britain as “benefit tourism.” This is the idea that people from poorer nations would, once their countries join the union, move to richer states to enjoy the benefits of their welfare system, rather than going there to work.

Following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, governments across Europe introduced austerity programs and there was a growth in popularity of anti-immigration parties in countries such as the U.K., France and the Netherlands. One target of these parties was so-called benefit tourism and to some extent those concerns have seeped into the political mainstream. The U.K., together with Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, issued a letter to EU officials earlier this year arguing that freedom of movement within the E.U. has put a “strain on vital local services” and is “burdening the host countries’ social welfare systems.”

This, together with Cameron’s latest proposals, has opened up a rift between some member states and E.U. officials. European Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor told the BBC on Nov. 27 that Cameron’s proposals were a contradiction to “rules agreed to by the U.K.” and that it risked “presenting the U.K. as a kind of nasty country in the European Union.” Andor also suggested the British public had “not been told the truth” with regard to welfare tourism — a point echoed by Jonathan Portes, director of the U.K.-based think-tank National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who argued that the debate over welfare tourism, and subsequent policies, has been lacking in substance.

Of the E.U.’s population of roughly 500 million, some 3% of Europeans live permanently in a member state of which they are not a citizen. There are no clear statistics on whether welfare tourism actually exists in the E.U., but the European Commission (the executive body of the EU) attempted to fill this data gap with a report published in October this year on the impact of intra-E.U. immigrants on member states’ social security systems. It found that, because E.U. migrants tended to be younger than the average age of the host population, they are more likely to be employed than are nationals living in the same country. The authors suggested the vast majority of migrants within the E.U. moved to find, or take up, employment and concluded that “immigrants are not more intensive users of welfare than nationals.” For the U.K., the authors said there were roughly 600,000 “non-active” immigrants from the E.U. residing there — a group that includes unemployed jobseekers, students and pensioners. This is out of a total of 2.3 million (non-U.K.) E.U. citizens estimated to be resident in the U.K.

Figures collected by the Department for Work and Pensions, the U.K. government body charged with overseeing the social welfare system, show that of the estimated 5.5 million people claiming working-age welfare benefits in February this year, 7% of these claims were from non-U.K. nationals. Of these, about 121,000 claims were from nationals from the E.U., meaning that E.U. nationals made up 2.2% of the total working-age benefit claimants in the U.K.

While the above numbers may seem small, the debate has really come down to their interpretation, argue experts such as Carlos Vargas-Silva, a senior researcher at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. “What is ‘big’ for somebody is ‘small’ for someone else. This is where political interpretation comes in,” says Vargas-Silva on the findings of the European Commission report. But as the E.U. grapples with the ongoing euro crisis and the growing popularity of euro-skeptic parties as it prepares for European Parliamentary elections next year, the principle of freedom of movement could potentially become an issue that divides, rather than unites, Europe.