The forthcoming European Council meeting (EU Summit) on 18–19 February will present a final opportunity for UK Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss a programme of reforms within the European Union (EU), as the UK heads towards a stay-leave referendum likely to be held later this year.
At the top of the list of reforms is the UK's call for a ban on EU migrants receiving in-work benefits in the UK until they have been in the country for four years. Some within the UK government argue that this would act as a disincentive for EU citizens considering coming to the UK, but others argue that it unfairly discriminates.
It looks likely that Cameron will have to be flexible on his demands or drop them altogether, amid warnings from Brussels that resistance to the plan is being voiced from all the other EU member states. Nevertheless the UK Prime Minister is expected to make a final push at the EU summit with a number of Europe's leaders.
Cameron's position on EU migrants coming to the UK raises a number of questions. Can the access to welfare benefits be negotiated within the EU? What are the EU migrants' rights and how are they exercised? Do EU migrants move to the UK and other member states to claim social benefits? If so, then is it the main motive behind their move?
What are EU migrants' rights?
The freedom of movement is one of four fundamental EU freedoms and a core element of the EU citizenship concept. It gives rights to EU nationals to move and reside freely within the territory of the EU and European Economic Area member states. However, as defined in the EU Directive 2004/38/EC, Freedom of Movement cuts opportunities for welfare tourism by stating that member states are not obliged to grant social assistance to economically non-active citizens during their first three months of residence in the host country. Furthermore, a recent ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union states that EU member states can block jobless immigrants from receiving specific welfare benefits. The ruling stressed that freedom of movement is not an unrestricted right to use the welfare systems and claim benefits in host countries.
The ruling could make it more difficult for the UK to negotiate tougher rules to exclude EU migrants from parts of its benefit system. The UK has already tightened the rules on benefit access so EU migrants have to wait three months after their arrival before they can claim child benefit and child tax credits. Of more significance could be the ethical issue of blocking EU migrant access to the UK's safety nets, even when they do pay into the economy through income taxes.
Are EU migrants really coming to drain the UK's welfare system?
As part of our study, we surveyed EU migrants in Leeds with the majority (84.1 per cent) of respondents reporting that the availability and level of social services had no influence on their decisions to live in the UK. Only a very small proportion (5.7 per cent) of respondents agreed that social benefits had a very strong impact on their migration decision. An additional 10.2 per cent reported that social benefits were a factor, but not a major one.
Our study also found a relatively low uptake of social benefits among EU migrants. The majority (67 per cent) of respondents did not receive any benefits in the UK. Among those who received benefits, the largest share (26.1 per cent) were recipients of child benefit, which is available to all UK adults with a parental responsibility if their individual annual income is below £50,000. Only a small number of respondents received any other social benefits in the UK.