Two weeks after taking office, chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition partners are at loggerheads over claims that Germany is facing a wave of so-called "welfare tourism".
The Social Democratic Party (SPD), Dr Merkel's junior coalition partner, has accused her CSU Bavarian allies of making populist, untrue claims that Romanians and Bulgarians were poised to exploit the German welfare system. On January 1st, Germany, along with eight EU neighbours, opened their labour markets to Romania and Bulgaria – six years after their EU accession and two years after Ireland opened labour markets to citizens of the countries.
"European liberty is the core of our idea of Europe and free movement of labour is an indispensable part of European integration," said SPD foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Unnamed SPD officials told the Süddeutsche Zeitung yesterday they would not allow the CSU "sacrifice on the altar of populism one of the great European achievements".
CSU leader Horst Seehofer triggered a debate over welfare migration last week by promising to "give the boot to [welfare] cheats". Mr Seehofer has brushed off claims that his concerns are an attempt to attract hard-right voters, although two recent studies dispute his claims that Germany has – or faces – a problem with so-called welfare migrants.
"Contrary to the pub wisdom, Romanians and Bulgarians here count among the particularly well-integrated foreign groups," said Klaus Zimmermann of the Institute for the Study of Labour.
A recent institute report classifies a quarter of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants as highly qualified. Almost three-quarters pay into the welfare system, the report found, while the percentage of Bulgarians and Romanians claiming German welfare is lower than the the average for all migrants.
A Bertelsmann Foundation report found migrants to Germany make a net contribution to the welfare system, yet about two-thirds of Germans think migrants are a drain.
German chambers of industry and commerce (DIHK) have criticised the CSU campaign, warning that Germany needs more migration to fill gaps in all sectors of the economy.
"Companies are having difficulties . . . not just [finding] academics and highly-skilled people, but people with normal trade qualifications," said Dr Achim Dercks, DIHK deputy chief executive. He warned that Germany could not afford to allow migration be put in a bad light because "a much smaller group of people come to use . . . the welfare system".
The lead-up to the January 1st deadline saw a series of German media reports from blackspots of mostly Roma migration, such as the western cities of Duisburg and Cologne.
Senior CDU officials agree with the SPD that problems in these cities, though serious, are limited in nature.
It remains to be seen if the German leader will move to challenge the CSU amid an EU-wide debate on migration ahead of May’s European election.
Yesterday the SPD put the CSU on notice with Michael Roth, minister of state for Europe in the foreign ministry, accusing the CSU of “playing a dangerous game” over migration.