The free circulation of workers from Romania and Bulgaria within the EU has sparked a furious row in Germany’s “grand coalition” between the Social Democrats and the Conservatives over immigration of the “poor”.

Conservatives have expressed fears that workers from Europe’s poorest nations will enter in massive numbers to leech off Germany’s welfare benefits, notwithstanding the fact that Germany has amongst the lowest handouts for jobseekers within the EU.

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday waded into the controversy as some of her ministers called for restrictions on welfare payments to Romanians and Bulgarians, going so far as to suggest they be fingerprinted upon arrival. Ms. Merkel’s own party, the Conservative CDU, has called for a three-month welfare payments ban on workers from the newest entrants into the EU’s arrangements on the free circulation of goods, services and people. A similar debate is raging in Britain, France, Italy and other relatively better off countries in the EU.

Ms. Merkel has announced the creation of a special committee to review the matter.

Opposition parties such as the Greens in Germany have protested against what they call the “politics of populism.”

Frank-Walter Steinmeier from the Social Democratic SPD, who holds the foreign affairs portfolio in the coalition government, said freedom of movement was one of the basic founding principles of the European Union and protectionist, populist or nationalist rhetoric “damages the EU and damages Germany.”

This is the first major quarrel to hit the new “grand coalition” in Germany. Unemployment as well as welfare benefits in Germany are low when compared to countries like France, Italy or even Britain.

In Britain and France the far-right has hit out against the European Union and its rules of free movement. Extremist parties fanning anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment are expected to fare very well in next May’s elections for the European Parliament.

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