LONDON (Reuters) - Britain laid out new rules on Wednesday designed to limit the access that migrants from other European Union states have to the country’s welfare system.
The European Commission, which has previously warned Britain that European Union Freedom of movement rules were non-negotiable, said it would look closely at whether the proposals were against EU law.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to curb immigration into Britain in an effort to quell concerns about migrants entering the country to claim benefits, referred to as ‘benefits tourism’.
The new test, due to come into effect on March 1, sets a minimum income threshold. That threshold will determine whether a migrant working in the UK should have access to the wider set of benefits that comes with being classed as a worker rather than a jobseeker.
“The British public are rightly concerned that migrants should contribute to this country, and not be drawn here by the attractiveness of our benefits system,” said Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
EU officials have repeatedly criticized Britain for its increasingly tough approach on immigration. That has compounded already tense relations between Brussels and London over the UK’s desire to renegotiate its 40-year-old relationship with the EU.
A spokesman for the European Commission warned that EU member states must not discriminate against workers from other member states, and ranking them according to the amount they earned was not compatible with EU law.
“The European Commission will scrutinize very closely the latest measures announced by the UK to ensure their full compliance with EU law,” he told reporters.
Cameron is keen to be seen taking a tough stance on immigration to appease euro-skeptic lawmakers in his Conservative party. He needs to stop voters from defecting to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party, which threatens to split the center-right vote in a national election next year.
He has already said Britain will stop helping jobless immigrants with their housing costs from April and has brought in new rules to prevent EU migrants from claiming welfare benefits as soon as they arrive in the country.
Under the new system, anyone earning 150 pounds a week, equivalent to working 24 hours a week at the British minimum wage, will be classed as a worker. Those earning less will face further scrutiny to see whether their economic activity falls into the EU classification of “genuine and effective” or is classed as “marginal and ancillary”.
“These reforms will ensure we have a fair system - one which provides support for genuine workers and jobseekers, but does not allow people to come to our country and take advantage of our benefits system,” Duncan Smith said.
Migrants without worker status will be ineligible for housing, pensions and other benefits. The new rules will also apply to nationals from Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway.
Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels and Kylie MacLellan in London; Editing by Larry King