The EU’s top court on Tuesday backed Britain’s right to limit child benefits to European migrants, backing up one of David Cameron’s key planks of renegotiation – just nine days ahead of the country’s EU referendum.
The Commission had challenged the UK’s right to deny some EU migrants access to social benefits for children on the grounds that they did not have lawful “right of residence”.
But the European Court of Justice ruled that London had the right to check whether they were lawful residents, based on whether the migrants had the economic means to ensure they would not be a burden on British taxpayers.
Right to reside
“The UK can require recipients of child benefit and child tax credit to have a right to reside in the UK,” it said in its judgement.
Britain’s right to limit such benefits was at the heart of a renegotiation deal that British Prime Minister David Cameron secured at a European Union summit in February to put before voters in the June 23 referendum.
The ruling should prove a bonus for the beleaguered ‘Remain’ campaign, facing a steady – if small – deficit in opinion polls with just over a week to go.
However, with the number of ‘undecided’s in the plebiscite shrinking, and with immigration emerging as the key single issue in the final days of campaigning, it may not switch many votes.
The Sun Wot Won It?
It also came on the day that Britain’s best-selling newspaper, the Rupert Murdoch-owned The Sun, came out strongly for “Leave”, with a front page splash headlined: “BeLEAVE in Britain.”
The ruling in Britain’s favour by the ECJ had been largely expected. In its ruling, the court stated, that “although that condition is considered to amount to indirect indiscrimination, it is justified by the need to protect the finances of the host member state.”
Cameron’s renegotiation deal — which will only take effect if Britain votes to stay in the EU — will also limit the amount of child benefits that EU migrants living in Britain can send back to their home countries.
Seizing on the verdict, Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Beader said, “This ruling is a victory for Britain, confirming we have a fair immigration system as well as having full access to the EU single market.
“The right to travel and work abroad is a two-way street, around 1.2 million Brits choose to live in the EU.
“Leaving Europe will not only cost British jobs and push up prices, it will also reduce opportunities for Brits to live, work and study abroad.”
The Brussels-based Commission first hauled up Britain on the issue in 2008 but London rejected its complaints.
The Commission then took the case to the ECJ in 2014, arguing that Britain’s actions were discriminatory and breached the EU’s principles of free movement.
But in its ruling, the court said that “UK authorities verify whether residence is lawful in accordance with the conditions laid down in the (EU) directive on the free movement of citizens”.
“It follows that the condition does not go beyond what is necessary to attain the legitimate objective pursued by the UK, namely the need to protect its finances,” it added.
That has seen a number of court judgments which underline that free movement for EU citizens is principally restricted to those in work or seeking work, or their dependents.