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

Fredrik Refvem/Aftenbladet
A Polish bus driver in Norway talking to his family at home

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.