Worries over the free movement of people have grown into a huge political issue in the EU, with the idea that EU citizens are using their free movement rights to sponge off the welfare states of other Member States becoming more widespread. The panic is particularly pronounced in the UK, where David Cameron has announced changes that will "put the Britain first" by reducing the time EU citizens can claim benefits in the UK without realistic job prospects from six to three months. (So this will put the UK first on benefit claims for those without realistic job prospects?).
The rhetoric over the UK's supposed "magnetic pull" is now deeply ingrained, and hasn't exactly been informed by sober comparisons of the relative generosity of the British welfare system versus other Member States (there's no league table of European magnetism). Strangely, there was an article in the right-leaning Telegraph about how thousands of Britons were claiming unemployment benefits in Germany. And when we look at what the change in the law will mean for benefit claims, the BBC reckons that the change will only affect roughly 10,000 people.
This is a small number - which amounts to around 1% of all jobseekers benefit claimants - but apparently a big enough policy for the Prime Minister to announce it. Indeed, the numbers of EU citizens claiming benefits while not working are tiny across the EU. But the pressure to be seen to be tough on immigration and on the free movement of people is building in many countries, leading to many of the centre-right (and centre-left) parties to adopt tough language on immigration and welfare to win back support from voters who have voted for populist parties. The danger is that this political grandstanding legitimises the politics of populist parties while not winning back support as the measures introduced by the mainstream parties have no obvious effect. The small numbers affected by welfare changes will be read in this political climate as showing the weakness of the mainstream parties, rather than demonstrating that, in reality, the numbers that move just to benefit from the welfare system (rather than actually looking for work), are just that small.
Clearly it's easier to bang the welfare tourism drum and toughen welfare laws than to stand up for the free movement of people - ministers prefer to be able to say "ah, but we have been tackling the problem" rather than be called out of touch for standing up for the free movement of people or arguing for policies to actually improve public services. But it feeds the anti-immigration climate and paints mainstream parties into a corner. When people discover (or "feel") that the policies aren't having any effect, they will lose faith in the ability of the mainstream parties and shift their support to the populists.
Focusing on creating jobs and making the economy work for all is a much harder task but it should be the business of the mainstream parties. It's when they give in to the allure of easy political grandstanding that they fritter away their credibility on a game with the populists that they cannot win.