May 28, 2018 / 1:40 PM / in 3 months

Austria doubles down on benefit cuts for foreigners

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s right wing coalition government on Monday doubled down on plans to cut benefits for foreigners including refugees, risking fresh legal challenges and opposition from the rest of the European Union.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz arrives for a news conference during the second day of a cabinet meeting in Mauerbach, Austria, May 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives, in government with the far right, won last year’s parliamentary election with a hard line on immigration, pledging not to allow a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis in which Austria took in one of the biggest shares of asylum seekers in Europe. They see benefit cuts for new arrivals as a deterrent.

In March the Constitutional Court struck down a local model for the government’s planned benefit reform, which required anyone claiming the main minimum benefit to have lived in Austria for five of the last six years. That system also reduced refugees’ benefits for an initial five years.

A general view of the news conference with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Social Minister Beate Hartinger-Klein during the second day of a cabinet meeting in Mauerbach, Austria, May 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Following that ruling, the cabinet unveiled its modified plan on Monday, which would cap single refugees’ main benefit payment at 563 euros ($656) a month, rising to the 863 euros available to Austrians if the refugees pass a German test.

“The fundamental rule we will introduce is that German will become the key to accessing the full minimum benefit,” Kurz told a news conference. “That means that whoever has insufficient language skills will not be able to claim the full minimum benefit.”

That raises the question of whether the new plan will also be blocked by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that refugees must be treated better than other foreigners since by definition they cannot return to their home countries.

But while the rules that were struck down did not distinguish between citizens of other European Union countries and Austrians, the new plan bars all foreigners from claiming the main benefit for five years.

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That sets Austria on a collision course with Brussels and other EU member states, where EU rules on freedom of establishment are widely believed to require that all member states’ citizens be treated equally.

“Freedom of establishment is the freedom to work in all of Europe. Freedom of establishment is not the freedom to seek out the best social benefits system and in that sense this waiting period is in my opinion a step in the right direction,” Kurz said.

Kurz said it was “frightening” that most people on the minimum welfare payment are in Vienna and roughly half of those are foreign citizens. But when asked if the new plans were legal, he said that would be decided elsewhere.

“We are not the Constitutional Court,” he said.

($1 = 0.8585 euros)

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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