10th Dec 2023

EU court takes UK line on welfare checks

  • Cameron (r) is drafting proposals for EU reform ahead of his in/out referendum (Photo: Crown)

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) should dismiss the European Commission's challenge to UK welfare restrictions for EU migrants, the court's advisor said in a non-binding opinion Tuesday (6 October).

The legal advisor to the EU's top court, Cruz Villalon, said the UK's “right to reside” test - a check on whether a benefit claimant really lives in the UK - is justified to safeguard the state’s public finances, even if it may be considered “indirect discrimination”.

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The Court, in a separate ruling on Tuesday, also said EU states can restrict voting rights of convicted criminals, but cast doubt on the legality of Britain's blanket ban on prisoner votes.

The welfare opinion represents a boost for UK prime minister David Cameron’s campaign to reform EU ties before holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

Renegotiating benefit rights for EU citizens is a major piece of Cameron’s reform plan.

The advocate general said the UK residency checks on EU migrants do not impose any condition additional to what is inscribed in EU law, but simply examines the lawfulness of that residence according to European rules.

The legality of this test was thrown into question when the European Commission took Britain to court in spring 2014.

The final ruling, due later by the court, is not bound by the advocate general’s opinion, but the EU judges, in practice often follow their advisors’ decision.

The ECJ ruling on voting bans for people “convicted of a serious crime” is also being closely watched in the UK.

Earlier, Cameron vowed to ignore the ECJ on the matter if it were to outlaw a blanket ban on voting for prisoners.

He argued it is up to national parliaments to decide on voting arrangements.

Britain, the only western European country with a blanket voting ban for prisoners, has repeatedly ignored rulings by the non-EU Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights which say its restrictions are unlwaful.

The ECJ case was brought by a French murderer, Thierry Delvigne, who defended his right to vote by reference to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The ECJ ruled that “it is possible to maintain a ban” on voting in the European Parliamentary elections for people who have committed a “serious crime”.

But the ruling added that such a ban must be proportionate to the aim pursued.

A UK spokesperson said it welcomed the welfare opinion, saying it "supports our view that we are entitled to ensure only EU migrants who have a right to be in the UK can claim our benefits".

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