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Row in Germany over feared influx from eastern Europe

German deputies on Sunday criticised calls by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies to toughen social welfare laws after immigration restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are lifted on January 1.

Anticipating an influx of Bulgarians and Romanians, the Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, drew up a list of proposals to make it more difficult for poor newcomers to draw state benefits.

Included in the measures to be discussed at a party meeting in early January are bids to restrict all welfare payments for the first three months after arriving in Germany and tougher penalties for fraud including deportation and refusal of future re-entry.

“Those who cheat are out,” was one CSU slogan according to the proposals reported in German media.

Members of the Social Democrats (SPD), partners in Merkel’s new left-right “grand coalition” government, blasted the initiative as dangerously populist.

“If you play that kind of melody, you’re allowing the right-wing extremists to dance,” SPD deputy Michael Hartmann told Sunday’s Tagesspiegel newspaper.

And SPD deputy leader and the government’s integration tsar, Aydan Ozoguz, warned the CSU not to “incite the mood in our society against the poor with false generalisations”.

“Those who act as if all people from Bulgaria and Romania were poor and queuing up here for benefits aren’t recognising the many highly qualified people working here for example as doctors or care-givers,” she said in a statement Saturday.

The state-run Research Institute for the Federal Employment Agency estimates that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians in Germany could rise to between 470,000 and 550,000 from 370,000 today with the new rules.

About 10 percent received subsistence-level payments for the long-term unemployed this year, more than the population at large with 7.5 percent but fewer than foreigners in the country as a whole with 15 percent, it said.

People from Romania and Bulgaria, and eight other European countries who are currently only allowed to undertake a limited number of jobs, will have free access to the EU labour market from January 1.

Germany is Europe’s top economic power and suffers from a lack of skilled labour, particularly in its wealthy southern regions such as Bavaria.

But its relatively generous social welfare system stokes widespread fears of “benefit tourism” from poorer corners of Europe and farther afield.

Reacting to similar angst, the British government has rushed through legislation restricting EU migrants from claiming unemployment handouts.

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