• EU nationals working in other member states contribute more to their welfare systems than they take out, says the commission (Photo: Wonderlane)

EU spells out rules on migrant access to benefits

13.01.14 @ 17:49

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
  2. Nikolaj email
  3. Nikolaj Twitter

BRUSSELS - The European Commission on Monday (13 January) outlined ways national authorities can prevent EU migrants from abusing state benefits while preserving the right to free movement.

“The guide published by the commission today will make it easier for member states authorities to apply the habitual residency safeguards in practice,” social affairs commissioner Laszlo Andor said.

Habitual residency tests are used to gauge an EU national’s right to access social benefits, like unemployment or housing grants, in a host member state.

Family ties in the host country and how long a person has stayed there are among the determining factors.

The guide gives a number of examples for special cases.

It notes retired Britons who live in Portugal may be considered “habitually resident” in Portugal even if they own a house in the UK and maintain cultural and economic ties with the UK.

Andor pointed out that under EU rules, an EU national is not automatically entitled to draw benefits from the moment they migrate to another country.

“There is certainly a limit to the right of EU nationals to stay in another country so long as they are not working there or not a relative of someone working there or they cannot support themselves financially,” he said.

In some circumstances, authorities reserve the right to expel an EU national if he or she is considered “an unreasonable burden” on the social system of the host member state.

Despite established EU rules, access to benefits has been subject to heated debate in the UK, where politicians and newspapers have stoked fears that there would an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians after labour restrictions were lifted on 1 January.

The highly politicised debate has seen UK Prime Minister David Cameron make promises to curb migrant numbers in an effort to win back voters from the anti-immigrant political party Ukip.

The issue has become intertwined with a planned 2017 referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU.

Some of the ideas floated by UK authorities would either have to be negotiated via transitional arrangements with future acceding member states or require a Treaty change.

The UK also recently introduced rules preventing migrants from accessing benefits until after three months.

The Brussels-executive, for its part, took Britain to the EU court in Luxembourg in May for applying a so-called “right to reside” test on top of the EU’s habitual residency test.

The commission says the British test discriminates against EU nationals because it can deprive them of welfare benefits even if they paid into the UK system.

Germany has also begun a similar debate.

Last week it announced plans to set up a special panel on labour migration and possible welfare abuse with inquiry results expected over the summer.

The German interior ministry is expected to publish figures in February on the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who have migrated to the country since 1 January.

The commission says mobile workers from other EU countries are more likely to be employed and are generally net contributors to the welfare systems.

The workers are said to fill in skill gaps and labour shortages.

“They tend not to take jobs away from host country workers,” said Andor.