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Austrian court deals blow to government's plan to cut benefits

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s Constitutional Court on Monday dealt a blow to the government’s plans to cut benefits for groups including refugees, striking down identical rules in one province and saying refugees deserve special treatment.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a news conference in Vienna, Austria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Austria’s parliamentary election in October was dominated by Europe’s immigration crisis, when it took in some of the largest numbers of asylum seekers in the European Union, relative to its population.

Conservatives led by immigration hard-liner Sebastian Kurz won and went into government with the far-right Freedom Party.

The two sides struck a coalition deal that includes reducing the main basic welfare payment for refugees to well below the standard amounts generally available. Opponents argue that refugees should be treated equally, as they still are in some provinces, including Vienna.

The court found that people granted asylum have by definition had to flee their home countries and cannot return.

“Those entitled to asylum cannot therefore in this context be put on the same footing as other foreigners (European Union citizens and nationals of third countries) who are free to return to their home countries,” the court said in a statement on its ruling on Lower Austria, the province that surrounds Vienna.

The government’s plans do not include capping the main benefit payment for EU citizens, which would be difficult under EU rules on freedom of movement. If refugees cannot be treated worse than EU nationals, that raises the question of whether Austria can cap refugee benefits.

The government does plan to restrict access to welfare payments for people who have lived in Austria for less than five of the past six years, as is the case in Lower Austria.

The court struck down that five-year residency requirement and a cap on the main basic welfare payment of 1,500 euros ($1,847) per family per month, which the government plans to introduce nationally.

The residency requirement’s stated objectives were to promote integration and encourage people to work. Since Austrians who have lived abroad could also fail to meet the residency requirement, the court found that it achieved neither aim, as Austrian citizens should be considered well-integrated and those who have lived abroad no less willing to work.

The government said in a statement that it respected the ruling.

“But we maintain our aim of finding a single country-wide solution that distinguishes between people who have paid into the social security system for longer and those non-Austrians who have newly arrived in the social security system,” it said, adding that a proposal would be submitted this year.

($1 = 0.8120 euros)

Reporting by Francois Murphy, editing by Larry King