23rd Oct 2016

EU court: Countries can deny benefits to 'welfare tourists'

  • Welfare line: Social benefits can be restricted, the ECJ says (Photo: EUobserver)

EU citizens who move to another member state "solely in order to obtain social assistance" may be excluded from benefits schemes, the European Court of Justice (EJC) ruled on Tuesday (11 November).

The ruling is likely to appease critics of "welfare tourism", a marginal phenomenon which has emerged on the back of freedom of movement between member states but which stirred a huge debate in the UK and, to a lesser extent, in Germany.

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The case was brought to the ECJ by a Romanian national and her son, who were refused certain benefits by a social court in Lepizig, Germany.

"Ms Dano did not enter Germany in order to seek work there and, although she is requesting benefits by way of basic provision which are only for jobseekers, it is apparent from the case-file that she is not seeking employment," the ruling reads.

The plaintiff does receive child support amounting to €184 per month and "maintenance payments" of €133 per month - which were not disputed in court.

"The Court of Justice points out that, under the [EU freedom of movement] directive, the host member state is not obliged to grant social assistance during the first three months of residence," the ruling reads.

In case people stay longer than three months but less than five years and have no job, they "must have sufficient resources on their own," the court added.

"A member state must therefore have the possibility of refusing to grant social benefits to economically inactive Union citizens who exercise their right to freedom of movement solely in order to obtain another member state’s social assistance although they do not have sufficient resources to claim a right of residence," the judges ruled.

They add that each person from another EU state has to be examined individually when they claim social benefits.

The ruling also says that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights does not apply in the case of social benefits, because they are a national competence and when member states "lay down the conditions" for non-contributory benefits, "they are not implementing EU law."

The British Conservatives in the European Parliament promptly welcomed the ruling.

"The European Court of Justice has ruled in favour of common sense. The court has made it clear that the original purpose of free movement is to allow free movement of labour and not of benefits tourists," Conservative MEP Anthea McIntyre said in a press release.

Her colleague Timothy Kirkhope said that while the ruling is about German legislation, "it will have wide-ranging implications for how the UK can tighten its welfare system to ensure only migrants that make a contribution can receive something back."

British PM David Cameron is seeking restrictions to EU's freedom of movement in order to stop what he calls "welfare tourism," even though recent studies have shown that EU citizens from other countries pay more into the British welfare system than they get out of it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for her part, has made it clear that freedom of movement is a red line and that she would not defend the UK if it sought to restrict it. A German government task force earlier this year did, however, propose certain restrictions to access to social benefits in order to limit abuse.

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