May Day Madness

May 1, 2006, is a crucial date for Europe, for it is the deadline for implementing the European Union’s directive on freedom of movement into national law. Most countries have already changed their immigration laws, or have promised to do so before the deadline. Only Belgium, Italy, Finland, and Luxemburg lag behind.

True, some of the old EU countries have opted for a prohibition of labor migration during a transition period that is initially set at two years and may be extended to April 2011. However, this prohibition does not apply to people who are self-employed or not working. Such people already enjoy full freedom of free migration today.

While the directive’s rules governing migration of employed and self-employed people hardly differ from previous EU law, the migration and social-welfare rights of non-working EU citizens have been significantly extended. According to the directive, every EU citizen has the right to a residence permit for up to five years in any member state, followed by the right to permanent residence. In principle, even inactive immigrants will then be eligible for social-welfare benefits, just like nationals.

The directive contains safeguards to limit potential abuse of welfare-state benefits during the first five years, including proof of health insurance coverage and a requirement that sufficient “resources” be shown when a residence permit of up to five years is requested. But it is not clear what these resources are meant to be. According to the directive’s preamble, the state cannot cite insufficient assets as a reason to refuse a residence permit, as this would be inadmissible discrimination. In theory, the resource requirement must be tailored to the individual circumstances of the immigrant. In practice, however, financial means in the form of assets or regular income are uniformly required from all immigrants, regardless of their individual characteristics.