EU judges rule against ‘welfare tourists’ in nod to Cameron

Swden shopping street

Roma panhandler in Sweden, 2013 [sigfrid lundford/flickr]

European Union member states can block jobless immigrants from receiving specific welfare benefits, Europe’s top court said on Tuesday (11 November), in a ruling likely to aid British Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to tackle so-called “welfare tourism”.

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.

“Economically inactive EU citizens who go to another member state solely in order to obtain social assistance may be excluded from certain social benefits,” judges of the Court of Justice of the Europe Union (ECJ) said.

They were ruling on a case involving Romanian Elisabeta Dano and her son who applied for a form of German welfare benefit.

German authorities rejected their request, prompting Dano to appeal to a German court which subsequently sought advice from the Luxembourg-based ECJ.

Under a 2004 directive, EU citizens and their family have the right to move and reside freely within the European Union.

But the Court points out that “the host member state is not obliged to grant social assistance during the first three months of residence”. And when the period of residence is longer than three months, but less than five years, “economically inactive persons must have sufficient resources of their own,” the court ruled.

“A Member State must therefore have the possibility of refusing to grant social benefits to economically inactive Union citizens who exercise their right to freedom of movement solely in order to obtain another Member State’s social assistance,” the Court ruled.

“Ms Dano did not enter Germany in order to seek work there and, although she is requesting benefits by way of basic provision which are only for jobseekers, it is apparent from the case-file that she is not seeking employment. She has not been trained in a profession and, to date, has not worked in Germany or Romania,” the Court further noted.

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.

“One of the things that [the ruling]…underlines is that the freedom of movement, as the prime minister and others have said, is not a unqualified right,” a spokesman for Cameron said. “We will look very carefully at what we and other governments can do working together in response to this.”

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.

Little evidence of ‘benefits tourism’

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.

>> Read: ‘Benefits tourism’ in the EU is a myth, report says

Manfred Weber, the President of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, hailed the ruling.

"This decision sends a clear message: member states have at their disposal various legal tools to defend their social system against abuse, while avoiding to violate the free movement of citizens which is a founding principle of the European Union," Weber said. "This is a clear message to the Member States and the British Prime Minister in particular," Weber said.

The ruling was also welcomed by the British Conservatives in the European Parliament.

"The vast majority of EU migrants come to the UK to pay into the economy, and are contributing more than they take out of national welfare systems. However, any abuse of a national welfare systems, by both EU migrants or UK nationals should not be accepted and be dealt with seriously," said Timothy Kirkhope MEP, Conservative Justice and Home Affairs spokesman.

"This ruling may address German legislation but it will have wide-ranging implications for how the UK can tighten its welfare system to ensure only migrants that make a contribution can receive something back.

"This court case and this ruling show quite clearly that the UK is not alone in its concerns about restoring free movement to its core principle: free movement of labour. The government will be heartened by this decision today."

The German government established a new committee in January to investigate the effects of so-called  "poverty immigration" from Bulgaria and Romania, amid complaints from overburdened cities. 

>> Read: Germany readies response to ‘poverty immigration’

After Bulgaria and Romania’s EU accession on 1 January 2007, most EU countries lifted the restrictions to their labour markets to workers from these countries.

But restrictions remained in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK.

These countries required Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to have work permits before entering their territory.

According to the Bulgaria and Romania accession treaties, of 1 January 2014 those restrictions are entirely lifted everywhere in the Union.

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