The European Commission is to take the UK to court over its “right to reside” test that European migrants must take to access welfare in Britain. The timing of the case is deemed to be politically explosive ahead of European elections.
The lawsuit by Brussels was first mooted last May and experts believe its delay is to do with the European elections on May 22, the Sunday Telegraph reported.
The action is being brought to the courts by the office of Laszlo Andor, a Hungarian socialist and European commissioner for social affairs and employment.
The European Commission says the UK’s “right to reside” test is discriminatory since British citizens don’t have to take it.
“We expect the referral to court to happen within the next three months,” a spokesman for the office said, as quoted by the Telegraph.
“UK nationals have a 'right to reside’ in the UK solely on the basis of their UK citizenship, whereas other EU nationals have to meet additional conditions in order to pass this 'right to reside' test. This contravenes EU rules on the coordination of social security systems which outlaw direct and indirect discrimination in the field of access to social security benefits,” he added.
The test was first introduced by the Labour Party in an attempt to calm worries about so-called benefit tourists coming to the UK to take advantage of the country’s generous welfare system.
The test means that migrants from other EU countries must prove they are seeking work before they can claim benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance.
Britain has one of the most generous welfare programs in Europe and also one of the most accessible, as benefits in the UK are not contributions-based but instead are means tested. As a result, migrants don’t have to pay National Insurance payments before receiving welfare.
If the UK loses the court case, it will face multi-million pound fines for not complying with EU rules, or will have to change the law.
Andor’s office was prompted into taking court action by a series of complaints taken to the commission by EU migrants who have been refused benefits in the UK. The case could lead to Britain paying out millions of pounds in compensation payments.
The European Commission believes as many as several thousand people may be involved, but the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does not have overall figures available.
Iain Duncan Smith, the DWP Secretary, said that migrants should have to contribute something just like everyone else.
“Our rules are in line with EU law and we will defend them robustly,” he said, indicating that the government expects to win the case.
Stephen Booth from Open Europe – a think tank calling for widespread EU reform – said that free movement of workers within the EU should not be confused with benefit tourism.
“Free movement of workers has been beneficial to both the UK and Europe, but the European Commission should not be seeking to weaken the protection of national welfare systems,” he told the Telegraph.