EU benefit tourism was already banned – so what exactly is Cameron boasting about?

The EU has always permitted restricting social security benefits to European migrants.

The EU has always permitted restricting social security benefits to European migrants

In a landmark ruling this week, the European Court of Justice has clarified that national governments can restrict certain welfare benefits for jobless EU migrants.

This was of course met with blaring headlines in the right-wing press triumphantly claiming that benefit tourism in the EU had been banned, while David Cameron welcomed the ruling as ‘a step in the right direction’.

However, less widely reported was the fact that the EU has always permitted restricting social security benefits to European migrants.

In fact, under a European law dating back to 2004, if you reside in another EU country for more than three months without finding a job you must show that you have sufficient resources not to be a burden on the state.

Moreover, you can only access social security benefits if you pass a strict residence test, one condition of which in the UK is having been in the country for over three months, so it is not true that EU migrants can simply turn up and access benefits from day one.

That perhaps explains why the Department for Work and Pensions has been unable to provide evidence that the UK suffers significantly from benefit tourism. In fact, all the evidence seems to show that being overwhelmingly young, hard-working and highly-skilled, EU migrants contribute significantly more to the public purse than they take out in services and benefits.

Moreover, many arrivals to this country actually create new jobs, with one in seven British businesses having been founded by immigrants.

The truth is that while freedom of movement is a fundamental principle of the EU, it has never been unqualified. It has always meant the right to work, study or retire in another EU country if you have the means to support yourself.

EU free movement is also a two-way street. Official government figures show that over 2 million Brits have settled in another EU country whereas 2.2 million EU nationals live in the UK. Freedom of movement is also surprisingly popular: a recent poll found that 52 per cent of the British public believe UK citizens should have the right to live and work anywhere in the EU (although admittedly just 36 per cent said this right should also apply to other EU citizens wanting to live in the UK).

So the notion that the EU permits and exacerbates benefit tourism has always been something of a convenient myth. While there are some outstanding concerns regarding in-work benefits, including the issue of child benefit being sent abroad, these can easily be fixed under UK law.

The claim that these issues must be dealt with in a grand renegotiation with ‘Brussels’ is a misconception that has been deliberately peddled by the Tories – and lapped up by the red tops – in order to create a straw man which they can then claim to have knocked down. The problem facing Cameron is that the European court has gone and knocked it down for him too early.

Eurosceptics will use this opportunity to try and push Cameron to make much more impossible demands that will push the UK towards EU exit. The rest of us should use it to champion the advantages of EU free movement and put the myth of benefit tourism firmly to bed.

Catherine Bearder is a Liberal Democrat MEP

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