Skip to main content

‘Keep your poor and hungry’? European citizenship and changing access to welfare rights


Roxana Barbulescu is University Academic Fellow at University of Leeds. Her research examines social inclusion and postnational nationhood through citizenship, migrant integration, asylum and anti-racist policies and practices.

Adrian Favell is Chair in Sociology and Social Theory at University of Leeds

 The freedom of movement of persons in the European Union entails the non-discrimination of EU nationals resident in other member states on a wide range of rights and entitlements – including many social and welfare benefits usually available to citizens of the country. As the EU has moved through the sequence of “crises” brought on by the rejection of the Constitution (2005), the global economic crash and sovereign debt crisis in Europe (2008-14), the Mediterranean refugee crisis (2014-16), and the British referendum on exiting the EU (2016), the new migrations and cross-border mobilities associated with freedom of movement have increasingly been seen as a cause of the growing, hostile populist reaction to the EU. Not least, this is because this ambiguous migration is seen to fundamentally clash with the privileges enshrined in the idea of the European welfare state for national citizens as part of the post-war European social compact (Manow et al., 2018). Despite popular accusations of  abusive “welfare tourism” and “poverty migration” by mobile EU citizens, emergency breaks in countries severely affected by the economic crisis such as Spain and open talks of European leaders of quotas following the Swiss and Brexit referenda, European citizenship, a hallmark of European integration, remains the most developed and ambitious beyond-the nation citizenship project currently on offer in the world. Actual intra-EU mobility continues at similar rates as before the start of the crises (Eurostat 2018) and transnational everyday practices of  mobile Europeans and their families remain an engine for genuine Europeanisation from below (Favell and Barbulescu 2018) However, as we also argue, the resilience of the European citizenship is not miraculous: it has come at the cost of sacrificing access to social rights for mobile Europeans in need of social assistance. By invoking the genuine concerns of nationals, and despite no evidence of abuse or fraud of their welfare systems as demonstrated well in the scholarship, two of the largest destinations for European citizens - Germany and UK - have both marshalled restrictions to welfare in order to barbwire access to social assistance for certain mobile Europeans. Protection for the most vulnerable of European citizens remains accessible only in home EU countries. To achieve this, Germany and the UK have introduced waiting periods, withdrawn social rights altogether, and introduced new testing and add new bureaucratic procedures. Significant welfare rights retrenchment however was not enough to save EU membership in the UK where freedom of movement of people was voted down in the Brexit referendum.

We thus argue that institutional explanations fall some way short of accounting for all the details in how these changes have happened. Clearly the urgency with which countries have moved towards restriction for EU migrants has been affected very much by longer patterns of immigration, types of migrants, and more recent pull-push selectivity in the last two decades. Numbers were high in both Germany and UK, but the types of migrants that were attracted differed by selection, and they entered a context very differently marked by distinct labour market regulations, past immigration histories and present immigration panics. The UK more effectively set up a system that allowed the labour market to mostly select out those migrants who would not perform in a liberalized labour market; Germany has now moved in this direction, necessitating a shift in its own notions of immigration and inclusion. The political variation at the national level also played a striking role. Nonetheless, there were parallels in national party competition, especially with new and successful challengers on the far right. UKIP and AfD changed the political debate and pushed mainstream parties to respond to their demands. In the UK, this abetted a slide towards political debate which has mischaracterized EU migration as welfare-driven rather than labour market-driven – for other political purposes. This had disastrous consequences for the political class in terms of the outcome of the Brexit vote. Euroscepticism in a sense is far more dangerous in core members such as Germany, as it threatens the EU as a whole; the British decision has made it easier for Germany to adopt an even stronger restrictive approach. We might surmise that there may soon be little left of the “non-discriminatory” principle of free movement of persons, and the full roster of rights on which free movement was built, once EU migrants everywhere are seen only as another class of “immigrants”.

This will clearly be a defeat for the idea of European citizenship. But there may be further consequences of this roll-back on the idea of citizenship itself – which is, in the Marshallian tradition, anchored so strongly in nation-building dynamics, quite different to the post-national experiment of European construction. However, as the examples of the UK and Germany suggest, once “anomalous” EU migrants have been absorbed back into the frame of “normal” immigration policies, the exclusion from social rights of certain “unwanted” EU nationals provides legal and policy mechanisms likely to enable states to also single out and exclude other categories of national citizens whose “non-discriminatory” rights to welfare can similarly be questioned. The anomalous post-national idea of EU citizenship may therefore turn out to have been a temporary challenge that has only sharpened the capacity of national bureaucracies and political systems to put the famous expansive, evolutionary Marshallian triptych of civic, political and social protection further in reverse – in societies already characterized by growing basic inequalities and ever stronger discriminatory differentiations.

Works cited:

Manow, P., Palier, B, and Schwander. H. (eds). 2018. Welfare Democracies and Party Politics: Explaining Electoral Dynamics in Times of Changing Welfare Capitalism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Favell, Adrian and Barbulescu, Roxana 2018. ‘Brexit, ‘immigration’ and anti-discrimination’, The Routledge Handbook of the Politics of Brexit, eds Patrick Diamond, Peter Nedergaard and Ben Rosamond, Oxon: Routledge. Pp 118-133


This argument is fully developed in the article Barbulescu, R. and A. Favell 2020.‘A Citizenship without Social Rights? EU Freedom of Movement and Changing Access to Welfare Rights’ International Migration