Welfare Benefit Tourism in the EU

Image: Vincent Albanese

Immigration continues to remain a ‘hot topic’ in the UK, especially as we approach the General Election and prepare for a potential referendum on EU membership. Parties such as UKIP emphasise that being a Member State of the European Union means the UK can enjoy no control over who comes in and out of its borders, the consequences being that immigrants put stress on our (already strained) services such as the NHS and the welfare system.

‘Magnet states’ upset the balance of population and resource allocation

Free movement of people and services are well-established in EU law. Obviously there is the intention of creating a common market and to allow for a diverse and economically-thriving Europe, recently enhanced by the Citizens Rights’ Directive 2004 (The “CRD.”) Inevitably, however, there are “magnet states” which attract more people than other Member States, upsetting the balance of population and resource allocation. Many politicians in the UK claim that citizens of the European Union target our country as somewhere to establish themselves because of the (almost) guaranteed high quality of life for British citizens. Under Article 20 of the TFEU (The Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union,) any person holding nationality of a Member State is a citizen of the Union, and this includes the right to ‘Move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.’ The principles of ‘Non-Discrimination’ and ‘The Right to Equal treatment’ add to this, stressing that discrimination on grounds of nationality shall be prohibited.

EU law is all about free movement

Opt-out advocates have a field day over such provisions. The problem is not necessarily with immigration of skilled, economically-active workers but for those foreign nationals seeking to claim benefits with no intention to work, (which by the way, is clearly a problem for British nationals too, so this isn’t just about immigration.) However, what these people fail to mention is the fact that this law is subject to ‘limitations and conditions laid down in the Treaties and by the measures adopted to give them effect.’ I’m not denying that EU law is all about free movement, but the legislation and recent cases exemplify that there’s an understanding about burdens and abuse of domestic welfare and healthcare systems. There has been increased co-operation with domestic states by the European Court of Justice, especially in terms of their interpretation of the Treaties. 

Concerning rights of workers, the EU does (contrary to popular belief) distinguish between economically active citizens and those who are unemployed. There are more restrictions on those people without a job, for example possible exclusion from social or tax advantages and time-limits on a job seeker’s right to stay in the host Member State. This weighing up of interests is not something which is often discussed by people with political agendas in the UK; they only stress the lack of control over borders and the ever-increasing burden on the healthcare system. 

Often an ‘othering’ process goes on when people don’t want to take responsibility for their decisions. Blaming inefficiencies in the NHS purely on EU immigrants is narrow-minded – clearly there’s a wider problem of resource allocation and lack of effective management. I digress. Restrictions imposed on those people moving from one Member State to another furthermore include whether they have ‘sufficient resources’ and whether they’d be an ‘unreasonable burden on the social assistance system of the host member state,’ stressing the case-by-case basis by which a person is assessed in terms of permanently moving to somewhere like the UK.

Is the EU as bad as everyone is making out?

Both the Supreme Court in the UK and the Court of Justice have been extremely co-operative in terms of immigration and preventing “welfare benefit tourism.” In 2011, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal for a Latvian national to successfully claim a non-contributory social security benefit in the UK, saying the restriction was justified upon weighing up social justifications and the need for an individual to have sufficient ties with the host Member State’s employment market or society in order to claim benefits enjoyed by nationals. Even more recently, the German case, “Dano,” in November 2014 involved the refusal to grant a Romanian national and her son entitlement to cash benefits. This ruling was deemed compatible with EU law as EU Directives “seek to prevent economically inactive EU citizens from using the host Member State’s welfare system to fund their means of subsistence.” Although the European Court are often deemed somewhat distant and detached from domestic social issues, case law shows that although the EU prides itself in free movement and citizenship, the court also imposes proportionate restrictions on those seeking to migrate, and ultimately shares the domestic aim to prevent the ‘welfare benefit tourism’ everyone is so worried about.

The future can only be positive

So the real question is, “Is the European Union as bad as everyone is making out?” I would argue not. I don’t deny that the EU needs reform, especially in the way it makes law.  (I don’t actually understand why there isn’t more public outrage in its lack of transparency and effective means of encouraging democracy. Perhaps it’s because people feel distant from the European Union – relying on its provisions can be time-consuming and costly.) However in terms of this so-called ‘uncontrollable’ immigration problem, although I am not advocating completely open borders, looking at the European Court of Justice and its recent attitudes towards taking into account the views of Member States, the future can only be positive in terms of Europe allowing for controlled immigration.