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ECJ rules against ‘benefits tourism’

European Court says EU citizens have no right to live in another EU country just to claim on social security

THE EUROPEAN Court of Justice has ruled against so-called ‘benefit tourism’, saying that EU citizens have no right to go and live in another EU state just to claim social security benefits.

The court stressed a link between residence rights and social security rights, saying: “One of the conditions for the right to live in a country is that economically inactive people should have their own sufficient means to live on.”

The ruling, which theoretically also applies to people such as Britons coming to live in France, came in the context of a Romanian woman and her son, who were not working or seeking work, and wanted to claim income support and housing benefits from a German state agency, which had refused. It has been greeted with relief in Germany and in the UK where David Cameron called it “common sense”.

In fact it appears to mainly confirm existing EU rules, although Le Figaro found the ruling “surprising” because it said the principle of free movement has generally been considered “superior” to rules on supporting yourself.

The court referred to a 2004 directive that says that people do not have an unconditional right of residence after three months and before five years and should not be “an unreasonable burden on the host state’s social security”.

The woman neither had means to support herself and her son, nor was looking for work, the court said, so “could not expect to be treated the same as citizens of the host state”.

Based on these principles in fact, official French residency rules already state that legal residence after three months requires that non-workers have “sufficient means”.

Access to some French benefits for expats before five years (after which EU citizens have a “permanent” residency right) has sometimes seemed to be a grey area, dependent on decisions of individual officials.

The situation is especially complex, however, with regard to access to the French healthcare system – seen in France as part of “social security” - for people who are neither workers or state pensioners (who have their healthcare paid for by their state of origin).

France has limited this right since 2007, however the position of the European Commission has been that EU residents should be able to access the CMU scheme, which provides access to healthcare for anyone who has not built up rights in other ways – either free for those on low incomes, otherwise at 8% of income above a certain ceiling.

At present it is not clear if the ruling by the ECJ will have any effect on expats in France – notably because it concerns very specific circumstances, and which do not relate to healthcare.

All that can be said for certain is that it means that where someone neither has means to support themselves nor is looking for work, states are not obliged to provide benefits for them to live on. The implication is that, had the woman at least been seeking work, the court might have taken a different view.

Financial newspaper Les Echos said the ruling mainly reaffirms the fact that states have some “flexibility” as to how accommodating they are with providing social benefits.

It may have more impact in Britain – with its NHS “free” to all residents and a social security system that until now has generally been based more on residence and means than on what people have “paid in”.

Photo:Cédric Puisney

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