The Austrian government's openly discriminatory policies against migrants have been invalidated by the Constitutional Court and challenged by the European Commission. But, argues Irene Landini, that has not ended ‘welfare chauvinism’ and social exclusion, either in Austria or elsewhere in Europe
In December 2019, the Austrian Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional measures introduced by the rightwing Kurtz I government (in office 2017–19). These measures had included imposing language requirements on migrants and refugees, and cutting welfare payments for larger families (G 164/2019-25).
In May 2020, the European Commission referred Austria to the EU Court of Justice for a measure by the same government. This proposed index-linking family allowances (as in-cash family benefits) to local purchasing power for children permanently residing in another – typically less wealthy – Member State of the EU/EEA or Switzerland, even if the parents were resident in Austria.
The measure affected mainly migrant workers from Eastern Europe, most of whom live and work in Austria and were, until the law came into effect, entitled to receive family allowances for their children living back in their home country.
This pushback on the Austrian government’s openly discriminatory social policies does not, however, end the story – either in Austria or elsewhere in Europe. There is increasingly contentious debate over access to social resources by native citizens and/or residents on the one hand, and immigrants and refugees on the other.
There is increasingly contentious debate over access to social resources by native citizens on the one hand, and immigrants on the other
A growing number of voices in political parties and governments are advocating ‘welfare chauvinism’: limiting immigrants’ access to social benefits and welfare services to reserve them for citizens and/or residents of the nation-state. This (political) view is based on an essentially ethnic-nativist understanding of community – and consequently of the purpose of social policy.
At the same time, national governments struggle to publicly justify welfare-chauvinist proposals, given the European democratic principle that forbids discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and nationality. The Austrian Kurz I government seemed to have found a way to justify nativist-based laws and proposals: present them as economic and/or social needs.
In December 2018, the Kurz I government, comprising the mainstream right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), passed the Amendment 83/2018 to the 1967 Family Burden Equalization Act, which introduced the index-linking of family allowances that mobilised the EU Court to act.
Thereafter, in May 2019, the government passed the New Basic Act on Social Assistance (Sozialhilfe Neu) as part of the main Austrian poverty-alleviation programme. The new law stated that refugees, persons granted subsidiary protection and non-permanent resident third-country nationals could be awarded the full amount of social assistance only if they attended training and language courses to gain sufficient knowledge of either German or English.
The law also incorporated benefit ceilings, and therefore cut payments for larger families, starting from the second child. While it didn't explicitly target immigrants and refugees, it ended up affecting them more than Austrian citizens and residents, because immigrant and refugee families tend to have more children than their Austrian counterparts.
in the City of Vienna, it was claimed that about 15% of the local budget was spent on welfare, of which refugees were often the primary beneficiaries
This prompted heated parliamentary and public debate. During plenary sessions of the Austrian National Council (Nationalrat) and Federal Council (Bundesrat) leading to the laws’ approval, opposition parties accused the government of fomenting discrimination against immigrants and refugees.
In response, the ÖVP and FPÖ argued that indexation of family benefits was needed to finally eliminate societal inequality. The crux of their argument was that families whose children resided in more expensive countries with lower purchasing power, such as Austria, could afford much less than those whose children resided in less expensive countries, even though they both received the same amount of money through the Austrian in-cash family allowance. This inequality, they argued, had made it increasingly difficult for many Austrian families to meet their children’s needs.
Governing parties also argued that the high rates of dependency on social assistance by refugees (and persons granted subsidiary protection) weighed heavily on the social budget at national and local levels. In the long term, they argued, it could lead to the collapse of the Austrian (public) economy, to the cost of all its citizens. This was especially true in the City of Vienna where, it was claimed, about 15% of the local budget was spent on welfare, of which refugees were often the primary beneficiaries.
Today the Kurz II Cabinet (in coalition, this time, with the Green Party) is about to finalise another new welfare law. It is not yet clear whether the government has learned its lessons or is ready to defy the Court’s verdict – and the European Commission’s action.
Other national governments may echo the Austrian strategy and seek to override the non-discrimination rule, even if it risks infringing national and international principles. The promotion of social exclusion as economic and/or social needs may, in the long term, legitimise welfare chauvinism, and even social exclusion itself.
the exclusion of immigrants and refugees from social benefits may prevent them from exercising fully their political rights, resulting in political exclusion
The exclusion of groups such as immigrants and refugees from fundamental social benefits is often linked to their disadvantaged position in sectors beyond the social: economic, educational and, crucially, political.
In the long term, the exclusion of immigrants and refugees from social benefits may prevent them from exercising fully their political rights, resulting in political exclusion. This is certainly a factor behind political instability and radicalisation in democratic states.
Conversely, social inclusion encourages political inclusion, thus helping to stabilise a democracy, and contributing to its sound functioning. For these reasons, politicians and policy makers (as well as European citizens generally) should reflect deeply on the challenges arising from social exclusion, and consider strategies to combat it.