WORLD: Ms. Scharrenbach, what do you not like about freedom of movement in the EU?

Ina Scharrenbach: I have nothing against freedom of movement. On the contrary, it is a great achievement of the European Union that every citizen of the Union has the right to move, travel and reside freely in the Member States. Europe is a stroke of luck, especially for Germany.

But the point is to adequately secure this freedom of movement against abuse. With 448 million citizens of the Union, this is not a widespread problem from the point of view of Brussels or Strasbourg, but we have special challenges in individual regions of North Rhine-Westphalia.

WORLD: What problems do you see?

Scharrenbach: We have to check which regulations have proven successful in terms of freedom of movement and where improvements may need to be made. It’s about immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, which received full freedom of movement in 2014. Despite improvements, there is still a large economic gap between EU countries such as Germany and south-eastern European countries.

However, this also means that there may be immigration that cannot be justified with freedom of movement because the criteria are not met. Or people are lured by promises and business is made of their economic misery.

People try their luck here, but they go from bad to worse. This is an undermining of freedom of movement. In the citizens’ perception, this means that something is going wrong in the EU.

WORLD: How often does that happen?

Scharrenbach: The “Missimo” project of the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of the Interior has provided some insights into model municipalities. But it cannot be generalized. There are those who take up work and meet the criteria. Then we have classic poverty immigration, and in the German-Dutch border area the municipalities are experiencing a new development through temporary workers in the meat processing industry and their accommodation in disregard for workers’ and tenants’ rights.

Through new cross-border cooperation and control actions, we are in the process of ending exploitative living and working conditions. The Housing Strengthening Act, which we as the state government have initiated, helps us in this regard.

WORLD: How many people from Bulgaria and Romania come to Germany?

Scharrenbach: According to the federal government’s free movement monitor, almost 99,000 immigrants came from Bulgaria and Romania in 2011 – before full freedom of movement was achieved; in 2018 there were 263,000. The share of Bulgarians and Romanians in the total number of EU citizens who immigrated to Germany exceeded 40 percent for the first time in 2018.

Every second immigrant child under 16 came from Bulgaria or Romania. We have several hotspots in North Rhine-Westphalia, in parts of Hagen, Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen. That also puts a strain on neighborhoods.

WORLD: You mean the so-called junk real estate that houses immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria?

Scharrenbach: There is a high proportion of simple housing construction in the Ruhr area. They are not renovated, but rented out to immigrants at high prices. For example, we are in contact with Gelsenkirchen to start a major urban redevelopment west. There is a high proportion of vacant properties there. We have to start dismantling to make room for new apartments and raise the standard again. Such conditions lead to frustration with democracy.

It is not only about protection against exploitation, but also about securing the future viability of cities. It is a contribution to the stability of democracy. Especially in the disadvantaged parts of the city, the majority of those entitled to vote, regardless of their origin, often no longer go to the polls.

WORLD: What would you have to change to prevent abuse?

Scharrenbach: It is important to take a close look at the conditions for freedom of movement and then to ensure that the member states actually apply them. We therefore need a preventive check on EU immigration as to whether the conditions for freedom of movement are met. And once incorporated into the system, we need increased control densities.

With the “Missimo” model project, we check whether there is an entitlement after access to the social benefit system. We want to move that forward.

WORLD: The reporting system is primarily the task of the municipalities.

Scharrenbach: A so-called one-stop agency would make sense in this context. This means setting up the municipality in such a way that immigration issues are dealt with at a central point from a single source. This means a combination of registration authority, immigration authority and, if necessary, health authority. We are in contact with several municipalities that want to implement this and will continue to promote it.

WORLD: What support do the municipalities need from the federal government?

Scharrenbach: A change in the right to report. Anyone moving has to report to the authorities within 14 days. But EU immigrants are only included in the central register of foreigners after three months, without further information, not even whether they have a job or are looking for a job.

With such information it would be possible to determine immediately whether there is an entitlement to freedom of movement. If we look at it geopolitically, it is also about the question of the Western Balkans’ admission to the European Union.

WORLD: So far there has been a regulation for the access of workers from the Western Balkans, which has been extended until 2023.

Scharrenbach: In my opinion, the Western Balkans belong to the EU, but we then have to learn from past processes. What went well, what went bad? What went bad must not be repeated.

WORLD: You are also home minister in NRW. Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser (SPD) believes that “the term homeland must be positively reinterpreted and defined in such a way that it is open and diverse”. Is Heimat misunderstood?

Scharrenbach: No, on the contrary, home is a purely positive term. That has to be strengthened and not reinterpreted. It is in the hands of the Democrats to use this term positively and not to cast such statements into doubt unnecessarily.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, we attach great importance to a cosmopolitan home. We are a state of immigration for centuries. We have regional identities and traditions that give people support. Home connects people and excludes no one. We have been doing this in North Rhine-Westphalia for five years by supporting almost 5,000 projects.

“Kick-off Politics” is WELT’s daily news podcast. The most important topic analyzed by WELT editors and the dates of the day. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music or directly via RSS feed.