Migrants spark German coalition rift amid welfare angst

Jobseeker in Germany - file pic Germany's job market is much healthier than in many of its EU partner states

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Tensions have surfaced in Germany's new ruling coalition over how to handle migrants from Bulgaria and Romania.

Conservative Bavarian allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel say extra measures are needed to prevent "benefit tourism" in the EU.

But the foreign ministry, now run by the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), warned that questioning freedom of movement was "harmful to Europe".

Bulgarian and Romanian workers are now free to get jobs anywhere in the EU.

Bulgaria and Romania, the EU's poorest countries, were subject to temporary labour market restrictions when they joined the EU in 2007. Nine countries kept the barriers in place until 1 January.

There is much concern in the UK about the possible impact of new EU migrants on the welfare system. The influx of East European migrants after EU enlargement in 2004 was much bigger than UK officials had anticipated.

'Abusive migration'

Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), allied with the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), set up a coalition government with the SPD in mid-December.

The CSU issued a statement on 29 December calling for extra measures to curb "poverty-driven migration" in the EU.

"For Germany we must develop a range of measures to protect our welfare system against abuses," the CSU statement said. "The acceptance of European freedom of movement is threatened by abusive migration targeting the welfare system - but not by justified defensive measures against abuses."

It also said: "Europe should not obstruct us if we want to have national regulation of poverty-driven migration. It is disastrous behaviour for Brussels to shut its eyes to this problem and to limit the possibilities for national measures against poverty-driven migration."

The CSU wants a re-entry ban for migrants who defraud the welfare system and wants migrants to be barred from making benefit claims during the first three months of their stay.

'Stupid slogans'

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hit back at the CSU statement in an interview with the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

He said: "European freedoms are the core of our idea of Europe, free movement of workers is an essential part of European integration.

"Germany has derived immense benefit from that, and certainly much more than others."

He said the arrival of many young jobseekers from southern Europe "helps us and helps the states they come from".

Germany's new Europe Minister, Michael Roth of the SPD, said the CSU had "not understood Europe - and clearly doesn't want to either".

He accused CSU politicians of trying to bend public opinion with "stupid slogans" which had no validity - whether in a Bavarian beer hall or in Berlin. "That is not the level at which the grand coalition should be working," he added.

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