The issue of the free movement (or ‘immigration’) of EU citizens between Member States has become highly controversial politically, especially in the UK. In particular, their access to benefits remains highly contentious. The CJEU has the chance to clarify some key issues on this point, in the pending case of Alimanovic, in which an Advocate-General issued an opinion today.
Today’s opinion is not binding, so we must wait to see if the CJEU is willing to follow it. But if it does, the Court will complicate the Conservative party’s strategy to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership. Even if the result of the upcoming UK general election means that the Conservative party’s plans are moot, the judgment will still be relevant to the Labour party’s less far-reaching plans to restrict EU citizens’ access to benefits.
The CJEU ruled in November 2014 in the well-known Dano judgment (discussed here) that unemployed EU citizens who moved to another Member State could not access social benefits there, if they were not looking for work. This ruling did not apply to other categories of unemployed EU citizens: those who moved to another Member State and were looking for work there, and those who had worked there already and become unemployed. Today’s opinion concerns both of these categories.
According to the EU citizens’ Directive, unemployed EU citizens looking for work in another Member State cannot obtain social assistance benefits from another Member State if they have not worked in that State. However, the case law of the CJEU states that those citizens can rely on the free movement of workers rules in the EU Treaty in order to claim benefits related to the labour market.
As for those EU citizens who have worked in that Member State and become unemployed, the Directive says that they retain worker status (and therefore access to benefits, including social assistance) if they have worked there more than one year. They also retain worker status if they have worked there for less than that period, although in that case they only keep that status for six months. However, again relying on the Treaty free movement rules, the CJEU has ruled that worker status can be retained in other cases too, for instance by women who have stopped work briefly due to maternity (see discussion here).
The Conservative party position is that EU citizens working in a Member State should have to wait four years to get access to tax credits, social housing and housing benefits, as well as no taxpayer support for job-seekers. As I discussed before, these are the first and eighth of Cameron’s nine objectives in the planned renegotiation of EU membership (in so far as it concerns ‘migration’ from the rest of the EU). The Labour party position is that EU citizens should have to wait two years for benefits.
The case concerns Swedish citizens (a mother and her children) who had lived in Germany before, left for a number of years, and then returned there. The mother and oldest child then worked in Germany briefly, but became unemployed. Do they have access to benefits?
The Advocate-General first clarifies that the benefits are social assistance, not labour-market related. So job-seekers in general do not have access to them; only former workers do. But as part of this analysis, he reaffirms the current rule that the Treaty gives job-seekers access to labour-market related benefits.
Then he examines whether people who become unemployed after short periods of work in a host Member State can be considered former workers – and therefore retain access to social assistance benefits – in cases besides those listed in the Directive. He argues that they can, in part on the basis of the EU Treaties, and that any Member State which refuses to extend such benefits to them automatically breaches EU law. Instead, a Member State must consider the benefit request on a case-by-case basis, assessing whether there is a sufficient link with the labour market of that State.
If it is followed by the CJEU, the Opinion makes both the Conservative and Labour plans to renegotiate UK membership as regards EU citizens’ access to benefits harder to achieve. The crucial point is the extent to which renegotiation concerns a Treaty amendment, which is far harder to achieve (unanimous agreement of all Member States, and national ratification) than an amendment to EU legislation, like the citizens’ Directive (qualified majority of Member States, proposal from Commission and agreement of European Parliament).
First of all, the Opinion reaffirms that the Treaty requires that all job-seekers get access to labour-market related benefits. So only a Treaty amendment could overturn that rule.
Secondly, the Opinion asserts that the Treaty requires that former workers might have access to benefits, on a case-by-case basis, if they have stopped work in circumstances other than those listed in the Directive. This goes further than the status quo, since the CJEU has only established this point as regards women interrupting work for maternity. The workers concerned have only been employed in Germany for short periods, well below the four-year waiting period that the Conservatives want, or even the two-year period that Labour supports.
It remains to be seen whether the Court will accept today’s opinion, or instead opt for a judgment that more obviously reflects the political sensitivities surrounding unemployed EU citizens’ access to benefits – as it plainly did in the Dano judgment.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 13