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Hilfe! The Spaniards are coming!

The truth about the Iberian welfare invasion: as immigrants from Spain and the rest of the crisis-stricken EU continue to flood into Germany, fears of Hartz-IV parasitism abound. But are they justified?

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Photo by Michel Andrysiak

As immigrants from Spain and the rest of the crisis-stricken EU continue to flood into Germany, fears of Hartz-IV parasitism abound. But are they justified?

Every day, the chance that you’ll hear Spanish on the U-Bahn increases. Fleeing skyrocketing unemployment rates (26 percent, or a staggering 57.7 percent among people under 25), more and more Spaniards are trying their luck in Germany. In 2013, nearly 30,000 Spaniards immigrated to the country, the highest number in 40 years.

Among many Germans, this influx has led to paranoia and the resurrection of an old fear: Sozialtourismus, or “benefit tourism”. The term was first coined in 1989, when West German labour minister Peter Clever warned that freedom of movement of workers within Europe would lead to migrants coming to Germany only to suck its social welfare system dry.

Now, as the economic crisis in Southern Europe worsens and Germany opens its borders to Romania and Bulgaria, the concept has become an electoral hit: the Technical University of Darmstadt selected it as the “un-word of the year” in 2013, and according to a recent Forsa poll, 60 percent of Germans believe Sozialtourismus fears are justified.

“Benefit tourism” would be a convenient explanation for why Spaniards come to Berlin, where the 11.2 percent unemployment rate is nearly double the national average. In fact, only 12,000 have officially made the German capital their new home, while many of them opt for Länder with more attractive economies, such as North Rhine-Westphalia (35,067), in Baden-Württemberg (20,245) or Hesse (19,456) three more obviously thriving job markets.

According to official statistics, around 16 percent of Spaniards living in Berlin receive Hartz-IV benefits. “They probably get less money in Spain, that’s why they come here. Maybe eight percent of them come here to work… The rest come to make a nice life without working, and neither our ‘do-gooders’ nor politicians can see through them,” says Renate*, a member of the far right-wing populist party Pro Deutschland.

Even some fellow Spaniards buy into the stereotype. “I am sick of these mummy’s boys who come along with their expensive cameras pretending they are artists and applying for Hartz-IV at the same time,” says Ángel*, a chef who works at a restaurant in Neukölln.

Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to think the same way. In early 2012, her cabinet abandoned the European Agreement for Social and Medical Assistance, signed in 1953, which established “the principle of equal treatment for the nationals of each of country in the application of legislation providing for social and medical assistance”.

Whether Germany was or was not allowed to unilaterally pull out of a EU agreement is arguable. The fact is this contentious decision has given Jobcenter bureaucrats legal leeway to refuse benefits to Spanish and other EU migrants on the grounds that as ‘non-nationals’ they are not entitled to such ‘social assistance’. The November 2013 government coalition agreement reinforced this position, with a passage authored by the Bavarian CSU party vowing to “reduce incentives for migrants in social security systems.”

But how realistic are their worries?

At first glance, Dámaris Moreno (photo) might confirm the CSU’s worst fears. Originally from Teruel, the 26-year-old pianist and art lover studied classical music in Holland but was drawn to Berlin “because of its cultural scene”. She moved here last year with the aim of teaching piano privately and in schools, but her first job failed to work out: “I taught in one school from Brandenburg, but the director never gave me a contract. He always declined it with silly reasons. He didn’t pay me for the hour if the kid didn’t show up in class, even though I was there waiting and wasting my time.”

One day, a friend told Moreno there was a government programme that could help her out. She visited her local Jobcenter and they gave her a pile of papers. “Some of them I didn’t even need to fill out – I just threw them away,” she says.

Thanks to a consultant, she managed to sort out the paperwork and, from August to January, received €380 in benefits per month plus housing costs, joining the contingent of non-German EU citizens claiming welfare in Germany.

Including Moreno, 1196 Spaniards in Berlin were granted Hartz-IV in 2013 – about one in 10. A drop in the bucket considering that a total of 570,000 Berliners – or almost one in five – received the benefit overall. Of the small minority from Southern Europe, most were Greek (2974, one in four) and Italian (2903, one in seven).

Only 164 Spaniards on Hartz-IV had no other income than the social assistance; the rest supplemented the benefits with freelance work or a ‘mini job’ paying €450 or less. Since the withdrawal from the European Agreement for Social and Medical Assistance, it has been harder and harder for unemployed EU migrants to receive help, which might be part of the reason why, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only one out of three Spanish people who moved to Germany in 2013 ended up staying.

Not all claimants get as lucky as Moreno. Eberardo Sánchez is a tall Spaniard in his forties, and this is the third winter he is spending on the streets. He’s been searching for work in Germany for a full two years. “In the Jobcenter they don’t want to give me any kind of help. I am tired of trying,” he complains. “It is pointless. Nobody cares for us. For example, the refugees get much more attention than us, the European citizens, the true migrants. We are forgotten.”

At the time of the interview, Sánchez was staying in a homeless residence. “I’m pretty good now. For the next four weeks I can sleep for only one and a half euros per day. Besides, I met some guys a couple of days ago and I started working with them as a plumber. First I need to go through a trial period and maybe at some point I’ll get the job.”

“Jobcenters use the withdrawal from the European Agreement for Social and Medical Assistance as justification to turn down Spanish applicants, even ones who have a ‘mini job’ and are applying for additional assistance,” says Iñigo Valdenebro. The Spanish lawyer, who received Hartz-IV himself when he first arrived in Berlin, co-founded the organisation “Berlin. Wie Bitte?” to help residents like Sánchez. The group offers free legal advice to Spaniards and other foreigners suffering from the German language barrier. They hold free consultancies every Thursday afternoon, and questions about health insurance and Hartz- IV are most common.

The group also lobbies on behalf of those who are denied assistance. “When the Jobcenter says no to an application, we can file a complaint. If the person gets a negative answer again, then it is possible to file a lawsuit. The process is free and around 70-80 percent of the time, the verdict is positive,” says Valdenebro.

If the demand is presented with urgent status, the assistance is given in a matter of days as a precautionary measure while the court decides. “This is quite important for people to know, because sometimes the process can take a while and the situation of the petitioner changes.”

The fact is that while Germany is attempting to shut Spaniards and other EU citizens out of benefits, a series of court decisions has recently called into question their right to do so. On February 6 in Dortmund, the Court of Social Affairs granted Hartz-IV to a Spanish family, pointing out the “serious doubts” they had about the compatibility of German and European laws.

Previously, a Jobcenter had refused the application of the married couple. Until then, they were getting by only with the benefits they got for their four children as well as some temporary jobs. Now they will receive €1033 per month.

The Dortmund resolution arrived a short time after the EU Commission criticised Merkel’s policies for denying Hartz-IV to a 24-year-old unemployed woman from Bulgaria and her son, stating that all Europeans were entitled to benefits, even when they were not actively seeking work.

The CSU did not lose the chance to claim that this is a national decision that can be made only in the Bundestag. Clearly, the debate between Berlin and Brussels won’t easily be resolved, and the 2014 opening of Germany’s borders to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens has only added more fuel to the fire.

Until a definitive decision is made, the only Spaniards living comfortably off of the state in Berlin might be the ones receiving assistance from… Spain! Since July 2012, María* has been living in Berlin while illegally receiving unemployment benefits from back home. The 45-year-old mother decided to move to Germany so that her son could learn a new language in a bilingual school.

“I had to make whirlwind trips to Spain to show up at the welfare office whenever they required me to,” says María. For one and a half years, she kept flying back and forth. In between trips, her family would help with her unemployment documents.

Maria’s €425 monthly benefit, plus the rent from an apartment she owns in Madrid, was enough for her and her son to afford their life in Berlin. Two months ago, however, the Spanish assistance ran out. Now she is looking for a job “in the tourism industry or wherever, I don’t mind,” she adds.

So far she prefers not to go to the Jobcenter asking about Hartz-IV because, as she says, “I’ve had enough dealings with public administration…”

I didn’t like the feeling of being economically supported by someone else.

So has Moreno, who decided to end her Hartz- IV benefits in January. “I felt under control by the authorities. I had to declare all my earnings and expenses and I was afraid that at some point they would force me to give it back.” She adds, “Besides, I didn’t like the feeling of being economically supported by someone else.” She currently gets by teaching private piano lessons.

Six years after the start of the European economic crisis, the EU is still far from recovery. Spain’s unemployment remains stuck on the ceiling, and the young and unemployed keep looking for opportunities elsewhere, including Germany. Nobody knows what the future will hold. But so far, the vision of southern Europeans flocking to Berlin to live at the expense of the German taxpayer remains a paranoid fantasy.

*Names changed