ECJ decision triggers crisis of social protection system in UK

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The ECJ ruling could open the floodgates to other EU member states cutting child benefits, Eurochild warn. [VladimirPustovit/Flickr]

The EU has spent years building a safety net for the most vulnerable children in society. The UK’s decision to cut child benefits for migrants may not save any money, but could lead the whole system to unravel, writes Jana Hainsworth.

Jana Hainsworth is the secretary general of Eurochild.

Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK could adjust the payment of child benefits to EU citizens with no ‘right to reside’ in the UK. The court ruling said that the UK is within its right to indirectly discriminate against nationals of other member states, on the basis that the ‘right to reside’ requirement necessary to access child benefit and child tax credit is appropriate to protect public finances.

The fact that the UK can indirectly discriminate against nationals, including children of other EU member states, risks unpicking a social protection system built over decades to protect those most in need. This decision has important consequences for children in the UK and rest of the EU.

Eurochild works to ensure that children are at the heart of decision-making in Europe. Although they have no vote, children will be the most affected by the referendum. Yet, neither campaign on the UK EU referendum has addressed the best interests of children and young people. Exactly how measures to restrict child benefit to migrant workers impacts on children’s rights and wellbeing is unknown and is not currently assessed in a systematic way. There is currently no mechanism in place to listen to the voices of children who may be affected by the UK ‘right to reside’ policy. Without the meaningful involvement of children and young people in decision-making, governments will not be able to respond to the individual needs of children and ultimately uphold their obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfil children’s rights.

As signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, the UK and the rest of the EU governments are obliged to apply the principle of non-discrimination to ensure that the needs and rights of the most vulnerable children and families, such as children in poverty, disabled children, children in care and refugee and asylum-seeking children, are the primary consideration.

Instead, the debates have focused on how much money can be saved. Even then, we raise the question of whether limiting child benefit and child tax credit to some of potentially the most vulnerable families will save money in the long-run.

The ruling came just a week before UK voters decide on the future of their EU membership, adding to the complexity of Europe’s evolving identity crisis.

Brexit may not be the death of the EU, as President Juncker assures us, but the precedent set by the UK elicits significant concern among those who work with the most impoverished children across Europe. Other countries in the EU, including Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, with this ECJ ruling, now have the green light to consider introducing this clause, starting a domino effect of potential deals with the EU.

Was this the role of the EU? As a network of local actors across Europe that work to promote and protect children’s rights, Eurochild sees the potential of a unifying social setup that supports greater convergence in Europe’s social policies so that we can improve the lives of children facing poverty, whether in Ireland, the UK or Greece. Therefore, we are apprehensive of the risk of unpicking social protection systems and the negative trend that this may encourage across Europe. Instead, we stress the need for a Europe-wide progression towards the fulfilment of children’s rights and the strengthening of social standards.

A few years ago, the European Commission adopted a recommendation called Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage. Poverty continues to affect children at a higher rate than adults, with 27 million children in the EU facing poverty or social exclusion. One in four children will miss out on the chance to realise their full potential. Clearly, EU governments have much more work to do.

The European Commission is currently consulting on a proposed European Pillar of Social Rights, intended to be a ‘reference framework’ to drive renewed convergence in the social performance of member states. As yet, it is unclear whether such a framework will be able to counter negative trends in restricting child benefits to certain groups and the unravelling of social protection systems. Will the Social Pillar have ‘teeth’ to ensure that member states protect financial resources for basic social services and social protection nets to implement existing child rights-related laws, policies and programmes?

The EU has made strides to improve social standards and design a web of safety nets to protect children. These safety nets themselves need to be protected from short-term interests for the future of all children, if we wish to tackle the challenges that we face today and more unknown ones in the future.

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