An important ruling from the Court of Justice of the EU has today clarified the extent of the right of free movement for citizens of EU countries. In a case involving a Romanian citizen claiming non-contributory benefits while living in Leipzig, Germany, the Court ruled that Germany was justified in withholding those benefits from a woman who had never worked in Germany, and could not provide any evidence to suggest that she had ever looked for work whilst living there.

This ruling clarifies the position regarding Member States’ ability to withhold benefits in certain situations. These have often been in areas where there have been fears regarding the possibility of “benefit tourists” taking advantage of the social assistance systems of other Member States.

The judgment of the Court looked at both the general principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality contained in Article 18 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and also the limits placed upon access to social assistance in secondary legislation, for example Directive 2004/38.

The ruling recognised that EU law allowed a Member State to limit access to benefits in cases where the person in question had never worked in the Member State to which they had moved, and that this was also backed up by other parts of the law on Free Movement of Persons (including Article 7(1)(b) of Directive 2004/38) which acknowledged the requirement for EU migrants not to become an unnecessary burden on the social benefit system of the Member State they move to.

What does this mean for the principle of freedom of movement for EU Citizens? It does not stop people from moving freely between Member States in the way in which they have done for a number of years now. However, it does put a limit on the extent to which they will be able to access state support when they get there, if they have not moved for the purpose of getting work.

This could set a precedent allowing Member States to look again at their own laws regarding access to benefits by EU migrants, and therefore ensure limits which deal with Member States’ concerns about possible abuse of their benefit systems. This would therefore address concerns such as those voiced by David Cameron recently regarding the extent of migration between Member States in the EU.

What it also does is reaffirms the important link between freedom of movement of persons and economic activity, because it makes the point that migration is primarily for economic activity, whether that be as a worker, or as a self-employed person, or someone who has the means to support themselves without becoming a burden on the benefits system.

However because it allows those who have worked to access the benefits system, it ensures that those who have migrated and engaged in economic activity will not be discriminated against just because they have moved there from another EU Member State, and so the principle regarding freedom of movement for workers is preserved.

The following two tabs change content below.
Dr Ewan Kirk

Dr Ewan Kirk

Senior Lecturer in Law at Birmingham City University