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Opinion: 'It's about the future of Europe'

Alexander Andreev / jrbJanuary 2, 2014

In the discussion about immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania and their claim on social services, DW's Alexander Andreev stresses the need to separate labor market issues from those related to the welfare system.

Alexander Andreev is head of DW's Bulgarian Service.Image: DW

"The migrants are coming!" It's a battle cry currently heard across large parts of Europe - an issue dominating not only the headlines in the British press, but also the talk in German pubs and even the toned-down, politically-correct documents of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) parties.

We are currently experiencing an attempt to reduce a complex problem involving party politics and European policies to a single aspect – namely the dangers associated with the alleged flood of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania and their impact on the public welfare systems.

But the reality is much more complicated. First of all, it concerns citizens of two different EU member states. Secondly, the migration isn't homogenous. While some Bulgarians and Romanians have a sincere desire to find work, others hope to collect child and unemployment benefits. And some of these people are Roma. Bulgaria and Romania have millions of Roma people, most of whom are very poor, and very badly treated by the majority population. Thirdly, the migrants' qualifications vary. While some are doctors and engineers, others can hardly read and write. And fourthly, there are no reliable forecasts of the number of possible immigrants, nor of the advantages or disadvantages for the labor market and welfare systems.

Fundamental EU principles and national law

"Labor market" and "welfare systems" are two key concepts at the heart of the discussion. But they need to be clearly separated. The free movement of labor among EU citizens is a fundamental principle of the European community: It is sacrosanct. The welfare systems, by comparison, are the remit of national law, with a degree of flexibility. That means that the United Kingdom and Germany as well as other EU member states can impose restrictions; but these may in certain circumstances need to be examined by the respective constitutional court and the European Court of Justice.

Even then, such restrictions could send out a false signal. After all, in this particular debate, as in the one about the bank bailout, it's about nothing less than the future of the EU. Solidarity as a fundamental principle of the EU is even more essential to immigration than to the rescue of banks, because the issue is not about ailing financial institutions but about millions of EU citizens. And because the real debate is about the future of the EU, we don't need any lame compromises at the national level but a proper debate about the basic question: Do we need more Europe, or less?

Putting the cards on the table

Proponents of "less Europe" have taken up clear positions. The British government as well as various anti-Europe parties in the member states are preparing for the European elections in May by stirring up their citizens' fears of being overwhelmed by foreigners, which become particularly acute in times of crisis. Both the CSU and the AfD in Germany are pursuing this strategy.

There is also an attempt by established parties not to abandon the right-wing fringes of society to newcomers such as the AfD. This is why proponents of "more Europe" need to adopt a clear stance as they head for the European elections. It may mean that they lose votes. Nationalists from all over Europe could then become stronger in the future EU Parliament.

Nonetheless, this is a good opportunity to put the cards on the table and finally begin the long-overdue discussion about a federal Europe - a Europe in which, among other things, the welfare systems are there for everyone. The right place for such a democratic discussion would be an EU Parliament that has greater power and confidence. In this way, despite the current concerns, the immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania could in fact contribute to the unification of Europe.