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

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

9 Responses to “EU benefit tourism was already banned – so what exactly is Cameron boasting about?”

  1. Leon Wolfeson

    Well, probably because it opens the door to changes to strip benefits from many British people. But hey, details.

  2. swat

    It may be banned but its still happening. Just because we have a Law, doesn’t mean we’ve stopped the activity.Maybe better scrutiny and investigation is required, and a presumption that only Brits can claim, because they’ve contributed to the system; and if they havden’t then they too should be presumed to be excluded.
    Question to MEP: Do Brits abroad have equal access to all the Benefits that European Nationals do in their countries?.

  3. robertcp

    One of the main reasons that silly myths about benefits, asylum and the EU are believed is that Labout stopped challenging them in about 1995! This counter productive approach has shifted politics to the right.

  4. robertcp

    I assume that the answer to your question is no, because EU nationals do not have a right to arrive in other countries and immediately start claiming benefits! The problem with the UK is that we often implement EU laws too inflexibly and then whine about it.

  5. treborc1

    Which was where labour were heading anyway.

Comments are closed.