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Saturday, 5 June 2021

Discriminating against families: Italian family benefits before the ECJ

 



 

Virginia Passalacqua, post-doctoral researcher in EU law, Utrecht University

 

In Italy, if you are a multimillionaire and you just had a baby, the State gives you 960 euros. However, if you are, say, the non-EU domestic employee of such a millionaire and you also just had a baby, the State gives you zero.

How is this possible? Thanks to Italian legislation that for 20 years has discriminated systematically against foreign families. No wonder, these families are also poorer compared to Italian ones: 25% of them were in absolute poverty in 2020, against 6% of Italian ones.

In July 2020, the issue of discriminatory criteria for access to family benefits arrived before the ECJ, thanks to a reference by the Italian Constitutional Court (ICC), currently pending (O.D. and others, C-350/20).

This is the fourth time that the ECJ is asked to assess Italian discriminatory criteria to access family benefits (after Martinez Silva, VR, and WS). But this time, the ECJ is called to interpret a new legal parameter: Art. 34.2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (the Charter). Can this be a game-changer?

The relevance of Art. 34.2 of the Charter has been questioned by commentators: admittedly, secondary norms are sufficient to declare the Italian law incompatible with EU law. Yet, it is argued that the ECJ should not miss this opportunity to clarify that migrants’ equal access to benefits is a fundamental right in the EU, providing guidance both to the Italian top Court and to the lawmaker.

 

The dispute before the ICC and the preliminary question

 

The facts of the case are rather simple. O.D. and seven other TCNs applied for family benefits, either assegno di maternità or bonus bebè, alias maternity and childbirth allowance.

The maternity allowance exists since 2001 and is granted to low-income women that do not receive a job-related maternity allowance. Instead, the childbirth allowance was introduced in 2014 to support families with a newborn. This was originally granted only to low-income families, but a 2019 amendment made all families eligible; still, the amount of the allowance varies according to their income (from 960 to 1920 euros p/y).

The Italian National Institute for Social Security (INPS) refused to grant O.D. and others the maternity and childbirth allowances because only Italian nationals, EU citizens, and TCN long-term residents are eligible under Italian law. Instead, the applicants are single permit holders: legally residing TCN workers whose status is regulated by the Single Permit Directive 2011/98/EU.

O.D and others challenged such refusal on the grounds that it entailed discrimination and was contrary to EU law. Indeed, Art. 12 of the Single Permit Directive imposes to Member States to grant single-permit holders equal treatment with nationals in several areas, including “branches of social security, as defined in Regulation (EC) No 883/2004”. They argued that the two allowances must be considered as social security and that they are equally entitled to them.

The applicants, supported by ASGI - a pro-migrant association, won all the proceedings against INPS before first and second-instance courts, until they reached the Italian Supreme Court. This decided to refer their cases to the ICC for a constitutionality assessment, which, in turn, decided to make a preliminary reference to the ECJ, under the consideration that this is an area “marked by the growing influence of EU law”.

The preliminary reference asks whether the childbirth and maternity allowances can be considered as branches of social security under Regulation 883/2004 so that they would fall in the scope of application of Art.12 Directive 2011/98 and Art. 34.2 of the Charter, which grants equal treatment to any legally resident person in matters of social security and social advantage.

I will tackle these issues in order.

 

Are the maternity and childbirth allowances to be considered as social security under Regulation 883/2004?

 

Arguably, EU law and case law leave little space for interpretation on this question. The ECJ has consistently held that to understand whether a benefit falls within the scope of Regulation 883/2004 we need to look at its “constituent elements”, i.e. “its purpose and the conditions for its grant, and not on whether it is classified as a social security benefit by national legislation” (UB C-447/18, at 22).

First, the benefit’s purpose must be related to one of the risks listed in Art. 3 of Regulation 883/2004, among which appear “maternity and equivalent paternity benefits” and “family benefits”, defined as “all benefits in kind or in cash intended to meet family expenses” (Art. 1).

Second, the benefit must be granted automatically on the basis of objective criteria, without any individual or discretionary evaluation of personal needs (Martinez Silva, at 22).

Both maternity and childbirth allowances are granted on the basis of objective criteria (i.e. income and the birth of a new child) and give economic support to families. They perfectly match the ECJ definition of social security, and this is why all first and second-instance Italian courts upheld the applicants’ view and granted them equal access to the allowances as required by Art. 12 of the Single Permit Directive.

INPS and the Italian government, however, advanced an exception in respect to the childbirth allowance. They argued that its goal is to incentivizing birthrate, rather than meeting family expenses; this would be confirmed by the fact that (from 2019) the childbirth allowance is a universal benefit, granted to all families and not only to low-income ones.

But this point too had already been addressed by the ECJ, in the case law on free movement of workers. In Reina, the Court assessed whether a German measure (“childbirth loan”) could be legitimately reserved to German nationals on the grounds that it was aimed “to make up the relative deficit in births among the German population in relation to the foreign population”.

Unsurprisingly, this chauvinistic argument did not convince the ECJ. The Court stated that the sole fact that a social measure pursues a demographic aim is not enough to exclude it from the scope of application of EU law and that social security and advantages must be granted equally to EU migrants (Reina at par 15; Commission v. Greece, C-185/96, at 34). Ironically enough, in the case of Reina the discriminated family was of Italian nationality.

 

Art. 34.2 of the Charter: a hollow hope or an added value?

 

As mentioned, the Italian Constitutional Court’s decision to invoke Art. 34.2 of the Charter was met with skepticism by commentators, who deemed it superfluous and of questionable relevance (Giubboni, 2021). This is because, as previously shown, secondary law is sufficient to declare unlawful the exclusion of single permit holders from the beneficiaries of the two allowances. So, does the Charter lack any added value?

Upon a closer look, the answer is no. Art. 34.2 of the Charter states:

Everyone residing and moving legally within the European Union is entitled to social security benefits and social advantages in accordance with Union law and national laws and practices.

This provision does present at least three important advantages. First, it refers to both social security and social advantages, while Art. 12 of the Single Permit Directive refers only to social security. Second, it grants equal treatment to all migrants residing legally, without making distinctions based on status. Third, it confers to the migrants’ right to equality a fundamental status in the EU.

The concreteness of the first two advantages is tempered by their limited scope of application (the Charter applies to Member States only when they implement EU law) and by their being subject to limitations under EU and national law. Instead, the third advantage, abstract as it is, is more significant.

In a context where even the European Social Charter grants migrants only limited access to social benefits (see Art. 19), the broad scope of Art. 34.2 sounds revolutionary. This confirms that, despite the (often valid) criticisms against the restrictive EU migration policy, fighting discrimination against migrants is a hallmark of the EU.

Indeed, the ECJ has fought discrimination against (EU and TCN) migrants for decades, pioneering the idea that equality is a necessary precondition for inclusion and integration (Kamberaj, at 90).

The case of O.D. and Others offers the ECJ the opportunity to clarify the fundamental nature of the principle of equal access to benefits for TCN migrants, which so far has been relegated to an ‘ordinary legislative function’ (Muir, 2020, at 121). This would pursue not only a rhetorical function, but it would provide guidance amidst a very confusing “polycentric” adjudication practice (Kilpatrick, 2014).

Especially in Italy, national courts have suffered from a lack of uniform interpretation when adjudicating migrants’ equal treatment (also because of the ‘dual preliminarity’ controversy, Lazzerini 2020). And the ICC denounced this situation in its reference: “The sheer number of pending disputes is testament to the serious uncertainty concerning the meaning to be ascribed to EU law.”

Moreover, Italian norms in many parts contain discriminatory provisions against migrants, and a current proposal to reform family benefits features again discriminatory selection criteria, despite a pending Commission infringement on the matter.

The ECJ evaded its obligation to interpret Art. 34.2 once (in the case of UB, C-447/18). This time, it should state clearly that migrants’ equal access to benefits is a fundamental principle of the Union, sending a powerful message to the Italian Constitutional Court and the Italian lawmaker.

 

Conclusion

 

The preliminary reference in the case of O.D. and Others speaks of an alarming phenomenon. In Italy, TCN families in need have been denied equal access to social benefits for decades, and the childbirth allowance reached a low point in this respect: it is universally granted to all but to TCN migrants.

Against this background, the preliminary reference in the case of O.D. and Others offers an important opportunity. The ECJ has a long tradition of fighting discrimination and constitutionalizing equality. In the case of O.D. and Others, its ruling can acquire erga omnes effect thanks to the follow-up ICC judgment.

The EU Court should not miss this opportunity for stating out and loud that equality is a fundamental principle of the EU also when it comes to TCN migrants, which cannot be disposed of by the erratic will of the government of the day.

 

Barnard & Peers: chapter 26

JHA4: chapter I:6

Photo Credit: Guiseppe Milo, via Wikimedia Commons

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