Germany grapples with immigration from Bulgaria, Romania

BERLIN (AFP) - Europe's top economy Germany is grappling with how to handle immigration from poor EU members Romania and Bulgaria now that their citizens can seek work anywhere within the bloc.

Restrictions that barred residents from EU's two poorest states looking for jobs in some of its wealthiest members expired on Jan 1, sparking fears by some of mass invasion and so-called "benefits tourism".

Britain, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants have settled since the European Union first expanded into eastern Europe in 2004, in December rushed through legislation restricting EU migrants from claiming unemployment handouts.

Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse where the minimum wage is about five times what it is in Romania and Bulgaria, is now also considering steps it could take.

Days before the government of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to examine possible measures to make benefits abuse more difficult, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called for a debate on the issue.

"I think it's not necessary to exaggerate this issue. But it shouldn't be minimised either," he said in an interview with the Bild newspaper on Saturday.

Mr Gabriel and Ms Merkel agreed in talks on Friday on the need for tougher measures against those abusing the country's generous welfare system.

"We don't need all-out discrimination of the Bulgarians and Romanians, but nor should we ignore the problems some big German cities face with the immigration of poor people," Mr Gabriel said.

"Next Wednesday the government will objectively tackle this issue during the first ministerial meeting of the year," he said.

Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, becoming the bloc's poorest members.

Wary of large numbers of jobseekers arriving from the two countries, several nations kept their job markets closed to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens for several years.

The last of these restrictions expired on Jan 1, including in some of the bloc's wealthiest nations - Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain.

Weeks before the expirations, Britain rushed through measures to limit so-called "benefit tourism," by having new EU migrants wait for three months before applying for out-of-work payments and other benefits.