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Oops! UK Challenge to Migrant Payments Hinges on Mis-Translation

LUXEMBOURG : Institutions Europeennes + Ville

Prime Minister David Cameron’s legal case for preventing migrants from claiming benefits rests on a mistranslation, Europe’s top court has heard.

Britain is currently locked in battle with the European Union Commission at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg over plans to restrict benefits to migrants for their first four years of residency in the UK. But council for the EU, Michael Wildersian, has argued that Britain’s case rests on a mistranslation of French and German transcripts of previous court rulings, the Times has reported.

The British case centres on previous EU court rulings which confirm that governments do not have to pay emergency social assistance payments to jobless migrants. During the hearing, Wilderspin accused the British government of attempting to extend the scope of the rulings to encompass non-emergency social security payments.

“What the UK regards as references to social security are simply mistranslations of what was said in the French and German texts, prestation sociales and sozialleistungen [social assistance] not social security benefits,” he said.

“The UK is trying to extend the clear wording beyond social assistance to pure social security.”

ECJ case law uses both French and the language of the country involved in the legal dispute for drawing up legal texts. The cases in question in this courtroom battle are known as Brey 2013 and Dano 2014, an Austrian and a German case respectively. Consequently, the pertinent documents are in German and French.

“The British case rests on a translation error,” said an EU legal source.

European legislation differentiates clearly between granting resident EU citizens a right to social security, such as family benefits, and preventing newly arrived, jobless EU migrants from claiming emergency funds.

The EJC’s advocate general yesterday upheld previous rulings stating that emergency funds could be denied to jobless recent migrants. That means that Cameron is able to restrict jobless migrants from claiming those funds for the first three months of their residency in the UK.

But he said the case law does not extend to Cameron’s plans to stop all migrants from receiving any benefits for the first four years.

However, Jason Coppel QC, acting for the government, argued that the rulings did apply to all social security payments. “The commission says the principles laid down [in case law] apply only to special non-contributory benefits, or SNCBs, which form part of the social assistance system of a member state,” he insisted. “The principle applies, I quote, to “social security benefits” and not just SNCBs.”

Pawel Swidlicki, of the Open Europe think-tank, said the disagreement and hair-splitting proved that Mr Cameron is right to argue for an overhaul of the rights of movement system.

“Current EU rules on access to national welfare systems are inconsistent and contradictory, and the UK is right to push for reform to ensure migrants must contribute before they can claim,” he said.


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