German minister dismisses fears of immigration from eastern Europe

BERLIN Sun Jan 26, 2014 7:28am EST

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble attends a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 24, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble attends a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

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BERLIN (Reuters) - German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble dismissed fears that too many immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria were moving to Germany, saying his country had benefited from European Union integration more than any other.

Schaeuble indirectly criticized conservative allies in the Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to his Christian Democrats (CDU), for fanning fears against immigrants, saying some sectors urgently needed migrant workers.

The CSU has proposed limits to welfare payments for immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, who from January 1 have had full access to the jobs market and social services of the rest of the European Union.

"We Germans don't have any reason at all to harbor hostile attitudes against others," he said. "Germany profits from European integration more than any other country. We're dependent on workers coming to us. Some sectors, such as nursing homes and home care, could not function any more without them."

He also addressed the fears of some Germans in his Bild am Sonntag newspaper interview that Romanians and Bulgarians were moving in growing numbers to Germany to take advantage of its generous welfare safety net.

"There are, incidentally, Germans who abuse the social welfare system or evade taxes," said Schaeuble, a respected leader in conservative circles in Chancellor Angela Merkel's party.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for curbs on free movement and raised concerns about migrants from Romania and Bulgaria heading to Britain in search of welfare handouts.

Cameron is facing a strong challenge from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants strict curbs on immigration. Britons named UKIP their favorite party in an opinion poll last week ahead of elections to the European Parliament in May.

The free movement of citizens is one of four "fundamental freedoms" enshrined in EU law, alongside the free movement of goods, services and capital. It has been a cherished component of EU membership, allowing students to move to any member state to study and workers to seek opportunities abroad.

But some Germans - along with some Britons, Danes, Austrians and Dutch - are having second thoughts about eastward EU enlargement in 2007, which made poorer countries members of the bloc but with a seven-year delay for access to some job markets.

Across Europe, politicians fear the issue will boost the far-right in the European Parliament election. High unemployment and austerity fatigue in the euro zone have made it easier for fringe parties to prosper.

The European Commission has accused countries that want to limit the free movement of people in the EU of indulging in stereotypes.

As the euro zone's biggest economy, with a low birth-rate and unemployment of just 6.9 percent, Germany is a magnet for migrants. With double-digit percentage rises in net inflows for three years, it received 67,000 Romanians and 29,000 Bulgarians in the first half of 2013.

(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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