Family allowance cut as a mortgage for austria’s eu presidency

Vienna (APA) – Austria's presidency, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is presenting itself as a pro-European and bridge-builder to the restive eastern member states .

Vienna (APA) – The black-blue federal government led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (oVP) presents itself as emphatically pro-European and as a bridge-builder to the restive eastern member states. However, with its plan to index family allowances, which apparently contradicts EU law, the bank is putting itself in a difficult position before the start of Austria's EU presidency.

"Under current legislation, this is not allowed," EU Social Affairs Commissioner Marianne Thyssen made clear back in December 2016. At that time, still under red-black, the oVP had launched a first attempt to cut family allowances. Austria would save only a fraction of the total child allowances and at the same time incur a higher administrative burden, the Belgian Christian Democrat argued. It did not want to "sacrifice the principle of fairness for a few peanuts," it told its Austrian party colleagues.

Last March, the EU Commission used the cost argument to reject a German move to make family allowance cuts possible. Without a change in EU law, which Austria also plans to seek, it risks condemnation by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In any case, the EU Commission reacted coolly to Thursday's black-blue agreement. It said it would examine the relevant "laws for their conformity with EU law once they are adopted".

While Wolfgang Mazal, a social expert representing the Austrian People's Party (oVP) in the government negotiations, considers the planned indexation of family allowances to be in line with European law and draws a comparison with private-law alimony payments, a report by the German Bundestag's scientific service is clearly negative. In 2014, the German legal experts stated that adjusting the state child benefit to the cost level in another member state would be "incompatible with Union law". Even more, it violates provisions of several directly applicable EU regulations. Those affected would be able to sue for their rights directly in domestic courts.

Above all, however, Austria is threatened with a weakening of its political position at a time when, as a future EU Council presidency, it is dependent on the broadest possible recognition among EU member states. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with whom Kurz wants to build bridges, has spoken out sharply against Austria's plans for cuts.

Austria wants to change the EU treaties "in small partial regulations in a deceitful way step by step," Orban insisted last February on the principle of equal treatment of EU foreigners. It is a "modification" of EU treaties that Hungary does not accept, said the right-wing conservative politician, himself pilloried for flouting EU law in the areas of justice and migration.

The plans, which have been criticized as discriminatory, seem to be just set up for the "problem children" Hungary and Poland, who repeatedly complain about unfair treatment in the EU. A Council presidency Austria testing the limits of EU law itself would not make it any easier to insist on adherence to basic EU values vis-A-vis Budapest and Warsaw. At the same time, the Austrian presidency already has two tough tasks waiting for it in the second half of the year: The negotiations on the EU financial framework and the conclusion of the Brexit talks.

Austria's plans to cut family allowances also have to do with Brexit. After all, it was the British government that had wrested a concession to this effect from its EU partners in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. Among the "goodies" agreed by EU leaders in February 2016 for British Prime Minister David Cameron was permission to bring family benefits to immigrants from poorer Eastern European EU countries in line with living standards there. As foreign minister at the time, Kurz immediately jumped on the bandwagon and demanded that this exemption should also apply to Austria.

However, the British put a spanner in the plan's works by voting against the country's continued EU membership in June 2016. The February summit decision has thus officially become obsolete. A large proportion of EU states, which reluctantly agreed at the time to avert the threat of Brexit, now want no part of the exemptions. Kurz's reaction was quite different.

Measures aimed against "immigration into the welfare system" will have to be implemented all the more after the UK's vote to leave, the then foreign secretary has said. If the EU does not comply with this "implementation mandate," "moods and developments such as those that have taken place in Great Britain will also take place in other member states," he warned at the time of a disintegration of the European Union.

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