The European Union’s supreme court told Britain on Thursday (18 December) that it could no longer require entry visas in advance for non-EU citizens who are family members of EU citizens, and hold a residence permit from another EU state.
Ruling in the case of Helena Patricia McCarthy Rodriguez, a Colombian married to a man with British and Irish citizenship living in Spain, the Court of Justice said EU rules did not allow London to insist on her applying in advance for an entry visa when she travelled from their home in Marbella to Britain.
There was no immediate response from the British government, which has made obtaining greater national control of migration from the rest of the EU a key objective, as Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to review Britain’s relationship with the bloc before a membership referendum he has promised to hold in 2017.
Cameron will meet his fellow EU leaders at a summit in Brussels later on Thursday.
The court reviewed the case at the request of British judges, to whom the family had complained that a requirement for Helena McCarthy to travel to the British consulate in Madrid every six months to renew a visa breached an EU directive granting free movement across the bloc for EU citizens, and their families.
In a statement, the court said that Britain’s concern with levels of identity fraud did not give it the right to impose automatic requirements on individuals like McCarthy, where there was no suggestion of fraud or her marriage being a sham.
“National authorities are required to recognise, for the purposes of entry into their territory without a visa, a residence card issued […] by another member state, unless doubt is cast on the authenticity of that card and the correctness of the data appearing on it,” the Court of Justice said.
Britain disagrees with the ruling, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman said.
“We argued against this in the court and so we clearly we disagree with the outcome,” the spokesman told reporters.
He said the government would wait until a ruling on the issue from the British High Court before deciding how to respond.
Under growing pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of a May 2015 national election, and from some of his own lawmakers, Cameron has said he would try to curb EU immigration if re-elected.
Critics of Cameron argue his approach to the EU could undermine its principle of freedom of movement.
Cameron's Conservatives want to stop what they regard as welfare abuse by poor immigrants from eastern Europe with no jobs and no health coverage, and ease pressure on local services, such as health and housing. Critics accuse him of exaggerating the problem to curry favour with voters who might turn to UKIP.
Cameron's bid to cap immigration in a more systematic way has provoked warnings from the European Commission, which regards freedom of movement as sacrosanct.
In a study published last year, the Commission found little evidence of "benefits tourism" happening in Europe. In most countries, EU migrants represent less than 5% of welfare beneficiaries and these migrants make an overall net contribution to the finances of their host countries because they pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits, the study found.
Cameron has promised to try to reshape Britain's EU ties before holding a referendum on the country's EU membership by 2017 if he wins next year's election.