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Cooling the immigration debate

January 4, 2014

The EU commissioner for employment, Laszlo Andor, has told a German paper that he sees no call for tighter laws on immigration from Bulgaria and Romania - saying the debate endangers EU rights to freedom of movement.

Laszlo Andor, EU commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Laszlo Andor gives a press conference on the proposal for a Directive to make it easier for people to exercise their right to work in another Member State on April 26, 2013 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. (Photo via GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Laszlo Andor said on Saturday that he saw no call for changes to the EU's rules on immigration since complete freedom of movement was granted to citizens from Bulgaria and Romania at the start of the year.

"We really must protect fundamental rights like the freedom of movement and cannot respond hysterically to people migrating. European law already includes a string of clauses protecting against abuse - we neither want nor need any new rules that would limit freedom of movement," Andor, the European commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, told Saturday's edition of Germany's Die Welt daily.

The issue has sparked a sometimes fiery debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), and her influential Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Merkel on Friday called Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel and announced a parliamentary committee to study whether new regulations were needed to prevent what the CSU had dubbed "poverty immigration." Both measures were seen as attempts by the chancellor to cut short the first public policy row within her new coalition.

As of January 1, nine EU members including Germany allowed citizens of Romania and Bulgaria - EU members since 2007 - the same rights to freedom of movement enjoyed by most member states. One of the conditions of the two countries' accession was that other EU members could delay granting full immigration rights for seven years.

Merkel's Christian Democrats have largely sought the middle ground in the domestic debate, welcoming the development publicly but also reiterating some of the rules already involved: Migrants can be sent home after 90 days if they have failed to find work, and are not eligible to claim welfare while seeking employment.

Industry lobby points to worker shortages

Germany's Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) warned that the political debate could ultimately damage the German economy.

"We must prevent immigration as a whole from being seen in a negative light as a result of a heated political discussion," DIHK boss Martin Wansleben told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung daily on Saturday, saying Germany would need up to 1.5 million skilled immigrants in the coming years to "guarantee economic growth and to stabilize the social welfare system."

Germany this week logged another year of record employment figures, with some sectors already bemoaning worker shortages.

"We need to continue working on offering migrants a more welcoming culture, that is a task for the whole of our society," Wansleben said.

CSU leader and Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer told a Munich-based paper on Saturday said that the SPD's criticism of his party was "hypocritical," saying the rival party had forgotten commitments made during the post-election coalition negotiations that established terms for a new German government. The SPD had in turn accused the CSU of "not understanding Europe" and the way Germany had benefitted from EU freedom of movement.

Despite maintaining a grip on three national ministries, the CSU effectively lost control of the influential German interior ministry in exchange for the overseas development portfolio as part of a three-way shuffle during the establishment of a grand coalition government.

msh/jlw (AFP, dpa, epd, Reuters)