The Financial Times published an excellent letter today from Piet Eeckhout, Professor of European Law at University College London. Mr Eeckhout was responding to David Cameron’s demands, in his ‘immigration speech’ last week, that people who come to the UK from other European countries should have to wait four years before they qualify for in work benefits such as tax credits.
EU member states may link benefits to residence, but not nationality
Mr Eeckhout points out that non-discrimination on the basis of nationality has always been a fundamental principle of EU law. EU member states may allocate benefits by reference to a person’s country of residence, but not nationality. It would thus contravene EU law to withhold tax credits and other benefits on the basis, say, that an individual is a Romanian national instead of a UK national. However, Mr Eeckhout points out that EU law has always permitted governments to base entitlements on a person’s residence, as opposed to nationality. By implication, it would be possible for a UK government to change the UK rules governing eligibility for benefits to make them dependent on residence in the UK for a specified period. This would disqualify a UK national who is born abroad, or has been working outside the UK for some years, from receiving certain benefits, but presumably prior periods of residence could also be taken into account, minimising the impact on such individuals.
Mr Eeckhout notes that the present UK government has not made any changes to UK law, or proposed changes to EU law, affecting eligibility for benefits. He says:
A speech is one thing; making a specific and detailed case in Brussels simply requires time, effort and a sense of purpose….Any substantial changes deserve a proper and public pan-European debate, as it risks affecting the lives of millions of migrant workers such as myself.
Mr Eeeckhout also makes the point, which has long concerned me as well, that we should not even refer to nationals of EU states as ‘immigrants’. He says that despite the EU principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality:
Citizens from other EU states continue to be looked at as “immigrants”, not citizens with equal rights (and of course also duties).
I do hope that the FT will ask Mr Eeckhout to expand his letter into a full article for the newspaper, so that it can receive the attention it deserves.