EU court to interfere in Brexit debate with child benefit ruling

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. [Cédric Puisney/Flickr]

The European Union’s top court will rule today (14 June) on whether Britain can deny family allowances to foreign workers with children living abroad, one of the hot-button issues in Britain’s looming  referendum on EU membership.

A senior adviser has already recommended that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) dismiss a complaint against Britain brought by the European Commission, which accused London of
discriminating against other citizens of the bloc in setting its residence rules for welfare.

Since then, British Prime Minister David Cameron secured more freedom to curb UK benefits available to citizens of the other 27 EU member states in order to bring down the numbers of
people migrating to Britain.

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.

However, those in favour of an EU exit say Britain should introduce a smarter migration system based upon its needs.

The court stresses its independence from politics, though EU officials say a number of recent decisions on benefits for migrants show sensitivity to concerns in Britain and other member states that have sapped popular support for the EU.

The European Commission argues that the British process of checking whether claimants of child benefit and child tax credit are legally resident discriminates against foreign EU workers because British citizens are not checked in that way.

However, Pedro Cruz Villalon, one of the advocates-general whose opinions are generally later followed by the judges, said Britain was entitled to ensure that those claiming benefits met
conditions set for taking up residence in other EU countries.

Residence checks are made only in “doubtful cases”, he said.

Other wealthier member states such as Germany also want to counter “benefit tourism” from poorer eastern European states which have joined the bloc since 2004.

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.

At the special EU summit aimed at sealing a deal to allow UK Prime Minister to campaign for his country to stay in the EU on 18-19 February, he obtained an “emergency brake mechanism”  o stop EU migrants claiming in-work benefits to last for a total of seven years.

The initial claim by Cameron had been 13 years.

Under new EU legislation, child benefit payments will be indexed to the cost of living for children outside the UK. The new laws will be open to all member states.

It will only apply to new arrivals to the UK, once the rules are passed, and to all workers from 1 January 2020.

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