The child benefit lie: How the German government serves the populists

Polish bus driver in Norway talking to his family at home - Credit: Fredrik Refvem / Aftenbladet

How much nationalist blindness can politics tolerate before it becomes completely irrational? Politicians of the grand coalition in Germany are demonstrating the urgency of this question.

The starting point is the annually recurring statistics of the German Federal Employment Agency. In 2017, around 343 million euros in child benefits were paid to families whose children live in other countries while their parents are working in Germany. This affected a total of 249 473 children in Poland, Romania, Canada, Croatia and a good dozen other countries.

The right-wing populists of the “Alternative für Deutschland“ (AfD) use these data to foster bad feelings against non-German citizens in order to give their clientele a feeling of their own superiority. One of their members in the Bundestag complained that “German taxpayers cannot understand why they have to pay child benefits, month after month, to Bulgarian children living in Bulgaria, for example.“ The Federal Government is “being taken for a ride on this question”. Similarly, the tabloid “Bildzeitung“ once again staged itself as the leading medium for anti-Europeans with the headline: “EU insanity with our child benefits – 343 million are going abroad”.

What is disturbing, however, is not the omissions of the established xenophobes. Much more serious is the fact that both parties of the Grand Coalition uncritically adopt the polemics. The federal government actually wants the payment of child benefit to be “indexed” throughout the EU according to the cost of living in the country of residence, confirmed a spokesperson for Social Democrat Labour Minister Hubertus Heil. However, Heil and his colleagues did not give any factual reasoning for the project – and with good reason. The project is counterproductive in every way.

First, there is  the legal situation. EU citizens are entitled to child benefits obtainable in their country of employment, even when the minors live in the country of origin. This was decided by the European Court of Justice in 2012. And that is entirely reasonable. “Those who pay their taxes must have the same rights as all other taxpayers,” states EU Commissioner Marianne Thyssen. Those  who wish to turn taxpayers working in Germany from other EU countries into second-class citizens would have to change EU law. But there will never be a sufficient majority. Besides the federal government, the right wing coalitions in Austria and Denmark are the only ones that want this to happen. So in that case, the EU Commission would also have to submit a proposal. This could happen at the earliest after the appointment of new commissioners. The current commission refuses to follow the demand from Berlin. “At least I won’t do it,” assures Social Affairs Commissioner Thyssen.

At the same time, the expenditure would be disproportionate to the possible return. Less than one percent of the total sum paid in child benefits goes to children in other countries. Should these be indexed, the payments for all children living abroad would have to be recalculated every year, certainly resulting in extended legal proceedings. The payments would obviously also have to be adjusted for those 33 938 children living abroad whose parents have a German passport. They would certainly not put up with it without complaint, especially because it isn´t logical at all. Life in the northeastern city of Angermünde is also cheaper than in Munich.

Above all, adjusted child benefit by country of residence would dramatically exacerbate one of the biggest social problems in Germany, the need for care. Around 200,000 women from Eastern Europe work in private nursing care for the elderly in Germany, most of whom hopelessly underpaid. Many of them leave their children at home with relatives, and child benefit is an important part of their income, according to labour market researcher Stefan Sell. If it were shortened, the incentive to relieve the Germans of their care work would fall. “If they would return home, our system of care in the household would collapse,” warns Sell. ”These child benefits are a low cost for Germany compared to the value of the work that is being done”.

So the debate on child benefits is just another example of the dire consequences of the renationalisation that anti-European populists are dreaming of. Nevertheless, none of the leading Social democrats or Union Christians have the guts to oppose the dangerous mischief of the right-wing zealots. The poison of nationalist delusion is already working.