The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Tuesday (15 September) ruled that a country can withhold basic benefits from EU migrants if they travel from another member country with no intention of finding a new job.
The ruling was hailed as a victory by Britain’s Conservatives, in their quest to halt “benefits tourism”.
Nazifa Alimanovic, a Swede, took Germany to court after she and her family had their benefits cut off, desite the fact Alimanovic and her eldest daughter had stopped working.
The ECJ said that the same benefits could be granted to nationals who had decided to not work. The ruling would not break the principle of equal treatment, the court said, despite the fact that it very clearly privileges national benefits rights over those of migrants.
In Germany, job-seeking EU citizens who have worked for less than one year retain the right to social assistance for six months. Once the period has elapsed, benefits can be refused.
The ECJ verdict is based on a decision made last November. The Court had already ruled that EU citizens in Germany are not entitled to social assistance if they do not actively search for employment.
‘Huge implications’ for the UK
Shortly after the ruling, British members of the European Parliament were quick in relating the court ruling to the current EU reform negotiations with the UK.
“This judgement has huge implications for the current EU debate in the UK. It confirms that jobseekers from elsewhere in the EU are not automatically entitled to claim benefits,” said MEP Catherine Bearder (ALDE).
“I hope the myth of benefit tourism will now be put firmly to bed, so we can focus instead on the many real and significant challenges facing the EU,” she continued.
British premier David Cameron is campaigning to “reform” EU freedom of movement as part of his attempt to rewrite the terms of the UK’s EU membership. One of the issues that is concerning, according to Cameron, is that EU migrants “flock” into his country to secure better welfare payments.
Ruling seen strengthening Cameron’s hand
According to Anthea McIntyre, an MEP from Cameron’s European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) group, the court ruling came as a boost to the UK’s renegotiation strategy.
“This is a major endorsement of our stance on benefit tourism and our views on free movement,” McIntyre said in a statement. “Increasingly the rest of Europe is seeing things our way. It bodes well for one of our key areas of renegotiation. Previously, most EU case law has strongly opposed any differentiation between EU migrants and nationals. I believe this is a sign that the pendulum is swinging our way. There is a clear view that freedom of movement to work is not the same a freedom to claim benefits,” she said.
The conservative politician said that while Britain has no problem with people coming to work and contribute to society, British taxpayers do not want to see their welfare system abused. She said that the issue would remain part of Cameron’s reform negotiations.
“I believe this ruling strengthens his hand,” McIntyre stressed.
A surge in Euroscepticism has firmly pushed the European Union onto the political agenda in Britain.
The ruling Conservatives have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership, possibly in 2016.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would campaign for the UK to stay, but only if the EU was able to reform, saying “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union.”
- 2016: Possible date for British EU in/out membership referendum.
- European Court of Justice: Judgment, Opinion and Application (C-67/14)
- EurActiv Germany: Deutschland darf EU-Zuwanderern Hartz IV verweigern