Tomorrow's front page of the Times features an interview with David Cameron in which he drops a strong hint that one of his first priorities for EU renegotiation/reform will be tightening up EU free movement rules and EU migrants' access to benefits.
This is the first time Cameron has floated the idea so explicitly - though the Times had a story a few weeks back precipitating yesterday's comments by the PM.
As regular readers know, we believe EU free movement has brought about clear benefits, but for public confidence to be maintained in this area, there needs to be clearer and more effective rules around access to benefits in particular. So Cameron is right to target this area.
This has become a hugely complicated and technical area as the boundaries of EU law have been extended through ECJ case law. That, and the fact that the EU has enlarged to include a huge variety of nations with different levels of wealth and domestic welfare systems, mean that the existing rules are no longer fit for purpose and risk (further) undermining public confidence in the original idea of free movement of labour.
So what can Cameron do? Well, the UK already has the support of Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, for an overhaul of the existing rules, particularly the ability for new migrants to claim benefits in another member state despite not necessarily having been employed or paying taxes there.
Following our own research and our work with the APPG on European reform on this issue, we have suggested the following reforms - which would require changes to existing EU rules but not the treaties:
- Firstly, rights of residence in another member state should be more closely linked to being in work or self-sufficient. This could be achieved by strengthening and clarifying the definition of habitual residence in EU legislation to ensure that rights of residence (after the initial three month period in the Rights of Residence (also known as the Free Movement) Directive) are dependent on a genuine economic link to the host country such as being in work, being self-sufficient and removing the right of residence as a job seeker unless someone has been in employment in the host country for a certain period. When determining whether an EU citizen is a “burden” on the welfare system, the host member state should be allowed to apply general thresholds for the income/resources that person is required to have.
- Secondly, the EU’s rules on social security should be amended to ensure there is no access to a host member state’s benefits without the person having the right of residence in that country under the Rights of Residence Directive. Where the Rights of Residence Directive currently speaks about the host country’s “social assistance system”, the Directive could explicitly include all state welfare.
- Thirdly, the rules on family benefits should be tightened so that people cannot claim for non-contributory benefits such as Child Benefit if their child is not living with them in the host country.
- Fourthly, the requirement for equal treatment with nationals of the host member state should be removed for EU citizens without a permanent right of residence in the host member state when it comes to the provision of state welfare that is in particularly scarce supply, such as social housing.
This would allow member states to continue to operate distinct welfare systems - the UK's universalist system is different to the contribution based systems often found elsewhere, which is largely why the UK has found itself in trouble with the European Commission over its 'right to reside' test for access to benefits.
The overall effect would be to instill a principle whereby access to benefits is tied to economic contributions.