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EU judges could strike down migrant benefit curbs after UK referendum

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EU judges could strike down migrant benefit curbs after UK referendum

European Council President Donald Tusk yesterday told MEPs the UK deal could not be annulled by the ECJ.

[European Parliament/Flickr]

The ‘emergency brake’ banning European Union migrants from claiming British in-work benefits – part of David Cameron’s deal to keep the UK in Europe – could be struck down by EU judges after the referendum, a leading legal expert has told EurActiv.

The British Prime Minister has insisted that his reform pact with EU leaders is legally binding and irreversible, although yesterday (24 February) leading Tory MP Michael Gove said it was subject to the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) approval.

Steve Peers is professor of EU law at Britain’s Essex University, writes extensively on his subject, and edits the EU Law Analysis website.

He has worked as a consultant for the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union and the Council of Europe.

He said that while parts of the deal are legally binding and, in practice, can’t be changed, others depend on later implementation and can be reversed – including the hugely controversial benefits ban.

The brake, which is planned to last seven years, was likely to face legal challenges in domestic British courts on the grounds it broke EU law on discrimination between citizens, he told EurActiv.

“It would have to apply to a particular case,” said Peers. “When this person, say a Polish plumber, is denied in-work benefits, he could take that to a British court.”

British judges could then refer the case to EU courts, for clarification on points of European law. Their decision would then inform a final UK judgement.

“The EU court would decide on that, and there is some chance the emergency brake would not go ahead if the EU Court struck it down. There is that possibility,” Peers said.

The only way to safeguard the brake from such court action would perhaps be through an act of UK Parliament exempting it from EU scrutiny, he added.

Even then that could only be legally possible if the brake did not apply to any other EU country at the time.

The emergency brake will also be made into EU law, under the terms of deal signed last week after marathon two day talks between EU leaders at the European Council.

Cameron clinches reform deal after benefits compromise

UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday night (19 February) said he would campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed EU, after securing promises of treaty change and compromising on his demands over benefits for EU migrants and their children.

Cameron had demanded the new rules as part of his price for campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU in the in/out referendum he promised before his election victory last May.

After a vote to stay in the bloc on 23 June, the European Commission will propose the bill.

Whether the brake only applies to the UK will only become more clear once that happens. The bill must ultimately be backed by the European Parliament to become law.


Expected support for the measure was thrown into doubt yesterday, after leader of the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) Gianni Pittella said his MEPs would fight any “discrimination” in the draft legislation during a debate on the Brexit deal.

If ultimately passed by the European Parliament, the brake will come into effect once the Commission says its conditions are met. That approval was promised by the executive, as part of the UK’s package.

But once in practice, it would be open to legal action in the same way as any other EU law.

“The emergency brake would be a separate question of whether this ordinary EU law was in conflict with the treaties,” said Peers.

Socialist MEPs cast doubt on UK's EU migrant benefit curbs

Members of the European Parliament today (24 February)  cast doubt on Prime Minister David Cameron’s deal to curb EU migrant benefits, raising the possibility of voting down the emergency brake after the 23 June referendum on Britain’s membership of the bloc.

The overarching package, including the brake, was signed by all 28 heads of state and government, and is binding under international law, according to Peers.

Only international law has no court to enforce it, he told EurActiv, and the EU courts only say they will take international law into account.

“But that doesn’t mean international law amends EU law,” said Peers, “So if there is a conflict EU law prevails.”

Yesterday, Cameron’s Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, denied claims that the settlement deal was subject to ECJ judges’ approval.

He was responding to Cameron’s justice secretary Gove, who supports Brexit in the 23 June referendum. Gove is a long-term ally of Cameron but defied the prime minister on Friday (19 February).

Shortly afterwards in Brussels, European Council President Donald Tusk told MEPs in the European Parliament that the deal as a whole could not be annulled by the ECJ, and was binding and irreversible.

Peers said, “The ECJ has the final say on the deal if someone comes along and challenges it under EU law. It will ultimately be the EU court that decides that but it might never be challenged, and there might be parts of the deal that are a problem and others that aren’t.”

Aspects of the package which essentially rehearsed the existing treaties, such as the UK’s opt-outs on Schengen and the euro, were safe as they repeated current law in different language, he added.

Cameron secured promises to enshrine certain parts of the package in the EU treaties at an unspecified future date.

But that does not include the emergency brake, and even if it did, would still be subject to unanimous ratification by all 28 member states.


British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.

After last week's European Council, where a reform deal was agreed, Cameron will campaign to stay in with the referendum date set for 23 June.

EU leaders had their red lines, and ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.

The decision on whether to stay or go could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.


  • 23 June: Referendum.
  • July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.

Further Reading

Cameron demands 13-year ban on EU migrant benefits at summit

British Prime Minister David Cameron told EU leaders on Thursday evening (18 February) that the ‘emergency brake’ to stop EU migrants claiming in-work benefits - a major condition for his support for the UK staying in the bloc - should last for up to 13 years.

Cameron fails to get EU Parliament assurances over emergency brake

UK Prime Minister David Cameron today (16 February) in Brussels failed to gain assurances from European Parliament leaders that they would pass unchanged the so-called emergency brake mechanism to stop new EU migrants to Britain claiming in-work benefits.

Brexit referendum looms after Tory election victory

David Cameron is set to pull off a surprise victory in the United Kingdom’s general election, putting Britain on course to hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, and raising questions over Scotland’s future in the UK.