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IMMIGRATION

Coalition parties fight over asylum benefits

Austria's conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) is calling for nationwide reductions in welfare benefits to immigrants, but the Social Democrats (SPÖ) have said any cuts would be “unconstitutional”.

Coalition parties fight over asylum benefits
Syrian refugees arriving in Austria. File photo: ORF

ÖVP club chairman Reinhold Lopatka said that the “refugee crisis has exacerbated the situation” and put a strain on the social security system, adding that “it’s clear that we need to take action”.

He said that Austria should follow Denmark’s model for social security payments – where immigrants who have resided in Denmark for less than seven of the past eight years get significantly lower benefits than those who have lived there for longer.

Lopatka also wants social security payments to be cut by 25 percent for immigrants who show themselves unwilling to integrate and find a job after one year in Austria, but there would be financial incentives for those who showed themselves willing to work.

The cuts are a way to make Austria a less attractive destination for refugees. “It’s clear that our welfare system is a large ‘pull factor’ for refugees,” Lopatka said. The minimum social security payment for an unemployed single person in Austria is €827 – Bulgaria, in comparison, only pays out a minimum of €416.

Last year Denmark approved cuts to welfare benefits afforded to refugees and other immigrants, which cut the benefits offered to people who have resided in Denmark for less than seven of the past eight years by 45 percent. Foreigners also receive a financial incentive to learn Danish, and receive more money after passing the intermediate Danish language exam.

Vienna's social democrat mayor Michael Häupl rejected the ÖVP’s proposals – saying they are “unconstitutional” and accusing the ÖVP of wanting to “dismantle the welfare system”. He said that he would not agree to any welfare cuts in Vienna and that recognised asylum seekers have the same legal rights as Austrian citizens.

Upper Austria state is already planning to reduce its welfare benefits for asylum seekers – from €914 to just €320. Federal states have the power to independently cut welfare benefits when they find they can no longer afford to pay the full amount.

IMMIGRATION

‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.

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