Open Europe Blog

The Mail on Sunday yesterday run with a story under the headline, “Cameron urged to follow Spain’s new edict: You can’t move here without enough money in the bank”, suggesting that the British government should follow Spain’s recent example and adopt a tougher line on migrants from other member states.

As so often with EU-related immigration stories, this one can be traced back to the 2004 EU Free Movement Directive – which we discussed at length in our briefing on EU asylum and migration policy, available here. The Directive sets out the foundations for one of the EU’s key pillars – freedom of movement for people. However, contrary to popular belief, the Directive is not a free for all. It gives member states the right to require citizens from other EU countries who want to live/work in that country for more than three months to prove that they can support themselves, i.e. that they have a job or enough money to avoid becoming a burden on the state.

Now, the Spanish government has recently adopted a new law after having its wrist slapped by the Spanish Court of Auditors. The Court had warned that Spain’s liberal transposition of the Free Movement Directive “has implied a serious economic loss to Spain, especially because of the impossibility of guaranteeing the refund of expenditure caused by the provision of health and social services to European citizens.” This is what the preamble of  the new law makes clear that Spain wants to address.

The new Spanish law specifies that, when a national of another EU member state decides to register so that he can stay in Spain beyond the initial three months, the person will have to provide evidence that he is financially self-sufficient and has a sickness insurance.

As we understand it, all of these requirements do already form part of the UK’s Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006 and a similar procedure to that proposed in Spain takes place in the UK via the-called ‘right to reside’ test, which essentially involves verifying that nationals of another EU member state who want to stay in the UK for more than three months are able to support themselves.

The Commission has, counter-productively, taken the UK to Court over the ‘right to reside’ test, since it considers it discriminatory. However, for most practical purposes, the British test mirrors the Spanish one – although the one envisaged by the new Spanish law appears to cover different types of social benefits than the British one.

This in turn brings us back to the rather opaque distinction EU law makes between ‘social assistance’ and ‘social security’ benefits, which is one of the main aspects of the dispute between the European Commission and the Department for Work and Pensions (see our report for some more background).   

So Spain is actually more or less doing what the UK already does. Still, it goes to show why, as we argued in our recent briefing, this issue needs to be managed far better if the benefits of free movement is to be maintained amid public scepticism.

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