EU citizens are not entitled to claim benefits in a member state they haven’t previously worked in, The Court of Justice of the European Union announced on Thursday (26 March).
The opinion of Advocate General Wathelet said foreign nationals who move without the aim of finding work or a new arrival in the process of finding work may be excluded by receiving social benefits.
Once an EU citizen has worked in a member state, the individual “may not automatically be refused” access to benefits.
The announcement has been welcomed by the governing Conservatives, who had made access to benefits a key part of their plan to reduce immigration from other EU member states.
Tory MEP, Anthea McIntyre (European Conservative and Reformists Group) said, “Importantly, it recognises the need for countries to be able where appropriate to deny benefits to nationals from other EU member states who may turn up chiefly to access welfare payments.”
“We are happy for people to come to the UK to work hard and contribute to society, but not just to claim benefits,” she added.
A previous ruling by the court upheld member states rights to deny benefits to EU citizens arriving in their territory with no intention of finding a job.
The ruling does not specify a minimum amount of time a migrants needs to be in work to gain access to benefits. Employment of some kind, or any duration qualifies them to access benefits under EU law.
Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said last month that support for freedom of movement could falter if it was perceived to undermine national social security systems.
“We need to make sure that it is clear […] while of course you cannot discriminate between nationals of member states, access to the labour market does not mean automatic access to social security systems.”
“Access to labour markets and social security is not the same thing,” said Timmermans.
The Conservatives want to stop access to in-work benefits and access to social housing until EU migrants have been working in the UK for four years. They also want to remove migrants from the UK after six months if they have failed to find work.
In an interview on Thursday night, David Cameron reiterated his belief that cutting access to benefit would help controls immigration from other member states.
Labour have said they will change employment rules to stop employers exploiting cheap migrant labour and undercutting national wage laws.
The Latvian foreign minister, whose country currently hold the EU rotating presidency, has said there is scope to tighten access to benefits under domestic law, but that countries must ensure new laws don’t discriminate against nationals of other EU member states.