EU: Stop the Generosity!

On Twitter, it’s always possible – if you’re obsessed enough to keep a close eye, or are at least blessed with serendipity – to pick up the occasional golden nugget that passes everyone else by. Like this one, for example:

Viviane Reding is one of the EU Commission’s Vice Persidents, but her specific remit is Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. It would therefore appear that she is doing a bit of freelancing beyond that portfolio, not that that phenomenon is unknown among EU Commissioners.

What’s remarkable here instead is her message, as appeared a few days ago in the relatively obscure business paper Deutsche Mittelstands Nachrichten (or “News for German Medium-Sized Firms”). Are you worried about poor people from elsewhere in the EU (read: Romania and Bulgaria) coming to your countries to “steal” jobs and freeload on your social welfare provisions? Reding asks. Well, the real problem here, she says, is those “generous welfare systems” themselves: cut them back, she says, and problem solved! Moreover, the problem would be solved by the member-states doing what they should do – i.e. cutting back – and not by the EU, whose problem it isn’t anyway.

Now, this is something new. Indeed – although Ms. Reding would undoubtedly deny any connection – it’s something that philosophically is straight out of the contemporary American Republican Party, whose partisans in Congress have done rather well lately to reduce food stamps (i.e. food assistance) and cut off extended unemployment benefits for US citizens. But, back in our European context, those Western European social welfare edifices, built up over the decades since the Second World War, are usually immune to criticism – at least from those outside the national borders.

Instead, the alternative “solution” to this problem in the news lately, particularly thanks to UK PM David Cameron, has been simply to continue to restrict the ability of EU citizens from those considered to be particularly shady member-states (again, these days Romania and Bulgaria) to emigrate elsewhere. Of course, this strikes directly at the notion of Free Movement for EU citizen: not only one of the EU’s key principles, but presumably part of what those same countries thought they were signing up for as they were going through the long and grueling accession process.

That is what seems to lie behind Viviane Reding’s involvement here. She has recently been on the warpath – put there, no doubt, by the noises coming out of Britain – in defense of that freedom of movement, even letting the Swiss know in a recent interview that they could be sorry – in terms of any desire they might still have for a closer relationship with the EU – if they go ahead with new immigration restrictions that their government is contemplating.

Again, the EU’s Justice Directorate General doesn’t usually have much to do with issues of freedom of movement. But around these parts (that is: €S*) we consider the principle well worth defending, and if that is done by one of the Commission’s big guns, then so much the better. The more interesting issue at this point, though, is how Reding’s attack on Western European welfare generosity has failed (so far) to reverberate elsewhere, in the press and in the public debate more generally.

* But that’s because I don’t face a bunch of Romanians and/or Bulgarians hustling in to set up a competing EuroSavant – or do I . . . ?

Update: Then this comes along from the Süddeutsche Zeitung to provide a bit more context:

“We certainly have no Social Union,” growls the highly-placed CDU (ruling coalition) German politician Armin Laschet. In other words, we have set up our social welfare systems for our own nationals, not anyone else who might come into the country. That was in response to EU Commission pressure that, in fact, such welfare benefits should be open even to those latter, who understandably will have done little or nothing to pay taxes to contribute to them in the first place.

So Ms. Reding’s response described above can be seen as the latest riposte in this debate: Oh go ahead, open up your social welfare for all, if you make it stingy enough it won’t matter anyway!

Has this failed to find any echo because it has simply been dismissed as ridiculous, within the framework of prevailing attitudes? And is it really that?

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