Auteur: Andrew Rettman
BRUSSELS - The city of Antwerp, in the Flemish-speaking north of Belgium, has imposed a special fee on ID cards for non-Belgians, including EU citizens, in a bid, according to one politician, to keep out foreigners.
Non-Belgians who move to Antwerp after 1 May will have to pay €267 to register with local authorities, while Belgians will pay €17.
Some categories of people, including students on the Erasmus exchange programme and legally recognised political refugees, are exempt.
The Antwerp mayor, Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever, says he is introducing the fee because it costs the city more money to process foreign applications.
But Filip Dewinter, from the far-right Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang, told press the real reason is to stop Kurds, Moroccans and Turks from moving over with their families.
"They don't want to say this because they don't want to be accused of racism," Dewinter noted.
"But in reality it's about all the non-European foreigners who come here without any income. Refugees, migrants from north Africa with no money - that's the kind of people we don't want. That's the kind of people who can't afford to pay €267 for everybody they bring over - their children, their parents," he said.
Similar ideas have been mooted in the Flemish cities of Ghent and Mechelen.
They failed to get support, but the heads of all 13 cities in Flanders are to meet on 30 April to discuss rolling out the measures.
Left-wing deputies in Belgium's national parliament last week criticised the scheme. "In my eyes, it's discrimination, pure and simple," Freya Piryns from the Green party said at the debate. Another left-wing party is challenging the move at Belgium's highest court.
The European Commission has also made critical remarks.
"Directive 2004/38/EC on free movement clearly states that all documents linked to residence of EU citizens and their family shall be issued free of charge or for a charge not exceeding that imposed on nationals," the commission told this website in a written statement.
It added: "The free movement of persons between EU member states is one of the most tangible successes of the past 60 years of European integration."
But the Belgian side has done its homework.
Philippe Beynaerts, a spokesman for Antwerp city council, said the fee would violate EU rules only if it discriminated between different foreign nationalities, for example, by exempting citizens from EU member states, but not Moroccans.
"We're pretty sure it's legally waterproof," he noted.
Belgium's interior minister Joelle Milquet told parliament the same thing, citing a precedent by the EU court in Luxembourg on a similar case in the Netherlands last year.
Meanwhile, the EU-Antwerp debate could have a knock-on effect in the UK.
Britain is planning to charge all EU and non-EU foreigners who live in the UK for three months or more the equivalent of €64 for an ID card.
The move comes amid expectations that lots of Bulgarians and Romanians will go to Britain when temporary immigration curbs expire in 2013.
The UK immigration minister, Mark Harper, has said the ID regime will test whether, for example, foreign students, "are really here for that purpose [study] and not coming here just to claim benefits."
The EU commission also has the British idea in its crosshairs.
It told EUobserver the UK can demand registration papers from EU citizens after they have lived there for three months.
But it noted the ID cards "should not cost more than a similar document would cost to nationals."
It added that any registration scheme has little meaning in terms of overarching EU citizens' rights to live abroad and claim benefits.
"It is not the document itself which is constitutive of the right to reside in another EU member state … the right to access social security benefits is as such not dependent on the existence of a right of residence," it said.