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20th Jul 2019

Commission welcomes EU ruling on UK welfare curbs

  • Unemployment office queue. Commission said: "EU free movement is about free circulation of people, not free access to social benefits systems" (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU's top court ruled on Tuesday (14 June) that the British government did not break European law with its policy of restricting social security to EU citizens.

The commission welcomed the ruling, which comes shortly before the UK's referendum on EU membership on 23 June, even though it in effect lost the case.

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Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas praised the verdict for bringing ”legal clarity” to the application of EU social rules.

”The European Commission has consistently stressed that EU free movement is about free circulation of people, not free access to social benefits systems of the different member states,” he told reporters, adding that it was consistent with the EU-UK deal struck in February ahead of the referendum.

Schinas reminded journalists that social security was not harmonised at EU level.

"The court judgment confirms that the member states decide which conditions they will apply for access to the benefits," he said.

"The Juncker commission has been very consistent on the application of this principle."

His statements indicate that the current commission, which has been led by Jean-Claude Juncker since 2014, has different views to those of its predecessor that brought the case before the court.

The commission brought the action against the UK in 2013 after receiving complaints from EU citizens who were refused some benefits on the grounds that they did not have a right to reside in the UK.

The EU executive said at the time that such curbs were discriminatory and argued that the UK had failed to comply with rules on the coordination of social security systems.

But the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on Tuesday (14 June) that the UK could refuse social benefits to EU citizens who lack the right to reside in the country.

The court agreed that the British demand that EU nationals must have a right to reside in the UK was a supplementary requirement that amounted to indirect indiscrimination against non-British people.

But the UK was acting to protect its national finances, the court said, and the measures did not go beyond what was necessary to attain that aim.

Commission's Schinas said that if the Remain vote wins on 23 June, the commission would present two proposals for rules governing access to social benefits for non-British citizens in the UK.

These proposals would be in line with the UK deal of 19 February, in which EU leaders laid down the conditions for UK's future membership of the Union.

Schinas announced that the EU executive could, at a later stage, propose a broader initiative to clarify the rights of EU citizens to receive social security in an EU country other than their own, in member states other than the UK.

"We will analyse the ruling and explore all other possible avenues," he said.

Germany has also indicated it would like to cut social benefits to EU migrants.

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