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Benefits for EU migrant children abroad - but how much?

Germany's Federal Minister for Economic Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, urges slashing benefit payments for children of EU migrants not living in Germany. But EU regulations favor the status quo.

EU citizens working in Germany are entitled to "Kindergeld"- child benefit payments - even if their children don't actually live in Germany, but stayed behind in their native country.

The issue of just how much money they should receive has surfaced again these days after Sigmar Gabriel, Social Democratic (SPD) Economy Minister and Chancellor Angela Merkel's deputy, said that children of EU migrants who reside abroad should only be paid an allowance "at the level of the home country."

Exploitation of social systems

Gabriel lamented that entire streets of "scrap real estate" in large German cities are inhabited by migrants who are in Germany just to receive lucrative child benefits. The deputy chancellor also suggested he has been waiting months for Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to submit a proposal on reduction for child allowances. 

"This is not new, and we've been investigating how to make it work for quite some time," a spokesman for the Finance Ministry told DW. "Making demands is one thing, while making it work in a European legal framework is quite another."

Just last week, the European Commission confirmed the EU will keep the rules as they currently exist for child benefits, and not institute indexation, arguing that it would be a "major bureaucratic exercise to set up such a system, while actually less than one percent of child allowances in the EU are exported from one member state to another."

Child benefits vary

In Germany, parents are entitled to child benefit payments until their child's 18th birthday if the child lives in Germany, in a EU member state, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland. For students or children who take up vocational training, payments are made until the child turns 25:  192 euros ($ 200)  per month per child for the first two children - after that, the payments are staggered depending on the number of children.

Child benefits in eastern European member states amount to just a fraction of the German payments.

kids jumping, black figures (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger)

The German government could imagine changing benefit payments for migrant children living abroad

After Britain earlier this year forged ahead to curb child benefits for migrant children, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she could "very well imagine us implementing similar measures in Germany." Austria and the Netherlands have also signaled an interest in plans to index payments to the cost of living or benefit rates where the children live.

Appropriate and fair

Such a move would prevent people from moving to another EU state just for the level of benefits - but could mean paying higher benefits for children in more prosperous EU states, and would also affect the sums paid for German children studying abroad, Marcus Weinberg, a Christian Democrat spokesman on family affairs, said on Monday. 

Germany's beleaguered cities and municipalities favor the idea.

"These social benefits are designed to improve a child's situation," Gerd Landsberg, managing director of the DStGB German Association of Towns and Municipalities, told DW in a written statement. "The benchmark should clearly be the country where the child resides."

How much money are we talking about?

 As of November 2016, Germany was making monthly child benefit payments to 188,000 EU migrant worker children living abroad - an increase of 54 percent this year. Most payments went to Poland, Romania, Croatia and the Czech Republic.

All in all, Germany paid about 32 billion euros in "Kindergeld," including 470 million euros to migrants whose children live abroad, which is significantly less than 0.2 percent of Germany's 2016 annual budget.

The issue seems to be important to Gabriel, but he also may simply be trying to woo potential SPD voters who feel left behind, Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist at the Berlin-based Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, told DW. In the end, however, he's playing into the hands of far-right movements like Germany's AfD, Koschmieder warned.