Conversations for the Future of Europe: 2. Free Movement and Social Rights Conditionality
In our second Conversation we turned to one of the most hotly debated topics in EU politics, namely the conditionality of access to social rights by EU citizens living and working in other member states. Our first speaker, Martin Seeleib-Kaiser, Professor of comparative public policy at the University of Tübingen, situated the challenge of social rights conditionality in a historical perspective: How did confederate and emerging federal states such as the North German Confederation, Switzerland and the United States cope with the tension between free movement and social welfare provision? The spirit of his contribution was hopeful: Yes, the EU system of access to social rights faces challenges from reticent member states who fear disproportionate costs, but, like the historical case studies, these challenges can at least partially be overcome. One policy solution he proposed was a European Minimum Income Scheme.
Our second speaker, Professor Dorte Sindbjerg Martinsen from the University of Copenhagen, laid out findings regarding the implementation and policitization of welfare-conditionality rules in individual EU member states. How are abstract EU policies actually applied, interpreted and debated in member states given the considerable ambiguity that exists in this area? Her core finding is that implementation is extremely variegated and often heavily politicised, leading to large de facto discrepancies in access to social benefits which are guaranteed by treaty. By way of recommendation, she suggested that key concepts in the social-rights debates need to communicated more clearly: Politicisation and worries about “benefit tourism” often stem from one-sided (mis-)representation of conditionality rules.
Our commentator, Martin Ruhs (Chair in Migration Studies at the Robert Schuman Centre, EUI), shared the speakers’ diagnosis of growing politicization of social rights conditionality across member states, which leads policy-makers and media to exaggerate the likely economic costs of extending wider access to social rights to EU citizens. However, he also pointed out that conditionalities track most people’s basic intuitions regarding the appropriateness of strong ‘contributory norms’. He wondered in this context why academic focus has rested squarely on conditionalities imposed vis-à-vis EU citizens whereas more restrictive conditionalities vis-a-vis third-country workers do not seem to raise similar concern.
Our Conversation Series continues on March 5, when Waltraud Schelkle (London School of Economics) and Eloïse Stéclebout-Orseau (European Fiscal Board) debate the future of European Monetary Union.
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