BRUSSELS (Reuters) — European Union states can restrict welfare benefits to people from other EU countries unless they have worked for at least a year in their host nation, the EU's top court said on Tuesday, in a case brought by Germany and keenly watched in Britain.
Even those actively seeking work in another EU country do not have the right to claim benefits there at the same time, the European Court of Justice said.
The ruling is likely to be welcomed by Eurosceptic parties in the 28-nation EU which argue that governments must do more to stop "benefit tourism" by EU migrants.
Immigration has become a divisive topic in Europe as it struggles to recover from years of economic crisis, and now also faces an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees from countries like Syria and Afghanistan.
Under EU rules, citizens of one member state can live and work anywhere in the bloc.
The judgment reinforces a precedent set by a ruling last November that said EU migrants can be denied benefits if they move to a country with no intention of finding a job.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly called for a change to the rules on welfare and benefits as he seeks to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Europe on issues such as immigration. He plans to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether the country should remain in the EU.
"People do not want to see our welfare system abused – and that is one of the areas the Prime Minister has a close eye upon in these negotiations," Anthea McIntyre, a Conservative British member of the European Parliament, said in a statement.
"I believe this ruling strengthens his hand."
The case concerns Swedish mother-of-three Nazifa Alimanovic, who sought benefits from a Berlin job centre. She and her eldest daughter had worked in several temporary jobs in Germany lasting less than a year before receiving unemployment benefit from December 2011 to May 2012.
In 2012, the Berlin job centre ceased benefit payments, arguing that the mother and eldest daughter were foreign jobseekers whose right to residence arose solely from their search for employment. It also excluded the other children from entitlement to allowances.
Germany's Federal Social Court brought the case to the EU court.
The EU court ruled that a foreign EU resident who has worked for less than a year before being laid off and registered as a job-seeker can receive social assistance for at least six months.
If the six months has elapsed, and for EU citizens who have not yet worked in their host country, an EU member state may refuse to grant social assistance.
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