In 1957 the Treaty of Rome was signed: this set up the European Union as we know and love it today (although then it was called the European Economic Community (the EEC)). It set out how member countries of the EU had to behave, and what they could expect of the other countries in the Union. It still forms the basis for the EU today, but a number of other treaties and instructions (called directives) have been made since, to clarify issues that the original treaty didn’t make clear, and to deal with issues that have arisen since 1957.
Among other things, the Treaty of Rome gave workers the right of free movement around the Union to citizens of EU countries. This meant that anyone who was a worker and moved to another EU country to work or look for work was entitled to everything that a citizen of that country was entitled to, including all the same social security benefits.
The UK joined the EU in 1973, and was then bound by all the requirements of the Treaty and the other treaties and directives that followed.
In 1994 the European Economic Area (EEA) was established. The European Economic Area consists of all the countries in the European Union, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. The extra countries are not members of the EU, but for our purposes they might as well be. A similar agreement applies to Switzerland. From now on whenever I say the EEA you should strictly read this as ‘the EEA and Switzerland’.
Until 2004 things were fairly straightforward. The UK government made all social security benefits available to workers (including people looking for work), which it had no choice about, and also made these benefits available to other EEA nationals in the UK, even if they were not workers. The only difficulty was that if a person wasn’t a worker they couldn’t always get benefits straightaway.
Then in 2004 there were three big changes:
- The European Union got a lot bigger (this is called enlargement): the new members were the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia (they are called the A8 counties because there are eight of them).
- A new, important directive was issued - (Directive 2004/38/EC) - which clarified the rights of EEA nationals for move to other EEA countries and to live there.
- The UK changed the way benefit rules treated EEA nationals: and not in a good way…
(To be absolutely correct, the UK changed these rules again in 2006, and it is the 2006 rules that now apply, but all it really did was to make things a bit clearer and remove some loopholes.)
Obviously all three things are linked: with the enlargement it was even more important that everyone in the EEA knew exactly what people’s rights were, and the British government was presumably worrying about people from the new EU countries coming to the UK.
The detail of what the UK government did is complicated, but basically it amounts to this:
- It noted that the new European directive made it very clear which EEA nationals have the right to reside in other EEA countries, and which do not. We’ll look into who this is more detail later, but the main group who do are workers (as was the case previously).
- It then said that unless a person has the right to reside, they are not entitled to income based benefits (including tax credits), and Child Benefit. This applies to a citizen of any EEA country, not just the new ones.
- It also said that people from the eight new countries would have even less rights. It had to get permission from the EU to do this, and this permission was only for a limited time. It has now run out, so people from the A8 counties now have the same rights as those from the ‘old’ countries.
The legal framework that these changes created still applies now, but there are still some developments that we need to look at to bring things up to date.
- On 1st January 2007 Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU (they are
called the A2 countries): the British government got permission to
give their citizens less rights than those of other EEA countries; in
fact, even less rights than citizens of the A8 countries had had. The
government was given permission to reduce their rights in this way
until 31st December 2013. From 1st January 2014 Bulgarians and
Romanians have the same rights as other EEA nationals.
- On 1st July 2013 Croatia joined the EU. Again, the government has
been allowed to restrict the rights of Croatians in the UK, probably
However, as anyone not living under a rock will be aware, the removal of restrictions to Bulgarians and Romanians caused a lot of controversy in the media, and in politics. As a result some changes were made to the rules which create extra restrictions for people from the EEA. The main ones are as follows:
- Anyone who has not been living in the Common Travel Area (the UK, Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man), will not be entitled to Jobseeker's Allowance until they have been in the UK for at least three months.
- It is now harder for EEA citizens to get Jobseeker's Allowance, and normally they will only be entitled to it for a maximum of 6 months. Job seekers who have never worked in the UK, and some who have, will only be able to get Jobseeker's Allowance for 91 days.
- Anyone who comes to the UK from the EEA and gets income based
Jobseeker's Allowance (after three months!) will not be entitled to
Housing Benefit. Jobseeker's Allowance claimants will normally only be
able to get Housing Benefit if they have been working in the UK but
your job has ended.
You might wonder why all these measures seem to be targeted at people
who are looking for work, and not those who unable to work because of
sickness, disability, age, or caring responsibilities. The reason is
simple: people from these groups and who have recently arrived from the
EEA are not generally entitled to benefits already. For most recent
arrivals from the EEA, the only option is Jobseeker's
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