In 1969, the United States Supreme Court held in Shapiro v. Thompson that a state’s one-year residency requirement as a condition for receiving welfare benefits was unconstitutional because it burdened the citizen’s right to travel freely within the United States. As a result, for years welfare offices in Chicago offered to buy clients a one-way bus ticket to Minneapolis. While Shapiro and subsequent decisions to a similar effect caused some grumbling, the principle on which they were decided is easy to understand and ultimately, I think, right. After all, the people the courts were talking about were Americans.
Now something similar is happening in the European Union. The Telegraph reports that the European Commission is threatening to sue Great Britain to force that country to fund “welfare tourists” from anywhere in the EU. The threat comes as Britain’s Tory government is trying to reform and tighten up that country’s welfare system:
The European Commission has threatened to take legal action against Britain if ministers do not water down rules limiting foreigners’ ability to claim benefits. Ministers fear the move could leave taxpayers handing out as much as £2.5 billion to EU nationals, including out-of-work “benefit tourists”, a new cost that could wreck Coalition plans for welfare reform. …
The commission is objecting to Britain’s rules on welfare, claiming they discriminate unfairly against foreigners. To claim benefits in Britain, EU nationals must pass a “right to reside” test. The commission says the test is too tough, and wants Britain to apply more generous EU-wide rules. …
In an outspoken attack today, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, says the commission’s move is part of a “wider movement” by the “unelected and unaccountable” European authorities to extend their power over the UK. “This kind of land grab from the EU has the potential to cause mayhem to nation states, and we will fight it,” he writes in The Daily Telegraph.
Unelected and unaccountable European authorities are trying to extend their power over the U.K.? Really? Have the British just begun to notice this?
[Smith] writes: “These new proposals pose a fundamental challenge to the UK’s social contract. They could mean the British taxpayer paying out over £2 billion extra a year in benefits to people who have no connection to our country and who have never paid in a penny in tax.
“This threatens to break the vital link which should exist between taxpayers and their own government.”
Well, that is largely the point of the European Union, isn’t it? Europe’s political class suffered from two sources of frustration: one, Europe’s countries are relatively small and are outclassed economically and militarily by the United States; and two, Europe’s people, for the most part, are not as far left as the political class. The European Union was designed to solve both of these problems. Beginning with the Common Market, which was a good idea, and continuing with monetary union, which was not, the EU was intended to evolve until Europe was in effect a single country, administered by Brussels bureaucrats who represent the continent’s political class rather than the voters of any particular country.
For a while, the project seemed to be going well. It hit a major snag with the banking crisis, which threatens the viability of monetary union. But the EU’s biggest problem isn’t fiscal. Its biggest problem is that Europe’s peoples have never bought into the idea that Europe should supersede their longstanding national loyalties. Englishmen stubbornly insist on remaining Englishmen, Spaniards Spaniards, and so on. The bureaucrats thought they could somehow finesse the issue of national loyalties; presumably they imagined that over time, national identities would blur and dissolve. Instead, policies like the EU’s insistence that residents of all member states be eligible for welfare benefits in Britain are bringing the more fundamental issues inherent in European union to the forefront. My own opinion is that as such contradictions are heightened, it becomes increasingly apparent that the EU is unlikely to survive in anything like its current form.