Top EU court rules against 'welfare tourism' - to relief of governments under fire over immigration

LUXEMBOURG (AFP) - The EU's top court ruled Tuesday that member states do not have to pay welfare to EU citizens coming solely to claim benefits, offering welcome relief to governments under fire from anti-EU parties on immigration.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, for whom the problem has become acute, was quick to hail the decision as "simple common sense".

"I support the European Court of Justice ruling that curbs benefits tourism," Cameron said on Twitter.

Charges that the European Union's core freedom of movement principle has been abused by so-called "social welfare tourists" have helped drive support for anti-EU parties campaigning for sharp immigration curbs.

Cameron in response has promised to limit immigration in an effort to halt the inroads being made by the staunchly anti-EU UK Independence Party into his Conservative Party's traditional strongholds.

The Prime Minister has already lost one parliamentary seat to UKIP and faces the prospect of losing another shortly, an acutely embarrassing possibility ahead of a general election in May which he must win if he is to hold a planned in-out EU referendum in 2017.

The European of Court of Justice (ECJ) said an EU citizen going to another member state could only expect to receive social welfare benefits if his or her stay complied with the conditions of the EU directive on free movement.

"One of the conditions... for a right of residence is that economically inactive persons must have sufficient resources of their own," it said.

"The directive thus seeks to prevent economically inactive EU citizens from using the host member state's welfare system to fund their means of subsistence."

Accordingly, an EU member state would not be obliged to pay social welfare to "economically inactive EU citizens who exercise their right to freedom of movement solely in order to obtain another member state's social assistance," the court said.

Ruling on a case brought by Germany, the ECJ said it was the national authorities who decide the payment of non-contributory social benefits, that is those for which the recipient has not made any contribution via taxes.

As such, they were implementing national laws and not EU legislation, it added.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, welcomed the ruling as clarifying the rights of EU citizens to welfare and vindicating its position on freedom of movement.

"The European Commission has consistently stressed that free movement is the right to free circulation," a spokeswoman said.

"It is not a right to freely access the member state social assistance systems and the court (ruling) confirms this," she added.

Benefit tourism and abuse of social welfare systems have become a hot-button issue for many voters disgruntled with the EU after years of tough austerity policies and recession.

With the economy faltering again after only a very modest recovery, anti-EU and nationalist parties made large gains in May European Parliament elections, with UKIP leading the way in Britain along with the National Front of Marine Le Pen in France and many smaller groups across the 28-nation bloc.

Their populist appeal does not go down well with the established parties nor large business groups which see the EU's single market as vital for their future.

The tensions showed up clearly on Monday when the head of the traditionally conservative Confederation of British Industry (CBI) bluntly told Cameron to focus on the country's long-term interests.

Britain's EU membership was "overwhelmingly in our national interest," CBI head Mike Rake said.

It could look inwards, shutting itself off from the world or it could "embrace the openness which has always been the foundation of Britain's success," Rake warned.

In reply, Cameron rejected any idea that his referendum promise was causing uncertainty that could hurt the economy.

"Britain's future in Europe matters to our country and it isn't working properly at the moment and that is why we need to make changes," he said.

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