Defending EU worker mobility
At the heart of the EU, Belgium has been ruled to be in breach of worker mobility laws. But what impact will the recent European Court ruling have on the nation's immigration policies? Martin Banks reports.
"Free movement of workers is one of the four freedoms
of the EU and should be enjoyed by all."
That, at least, is according to Vladimir Spidla, EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs.
Court ruling will force change to Belgian immigration law
When eight Central and Eastern European states joined the EU in 2004, only three of the established members, the UK, Sweden and Ireland, agreed to allow their workers free entry.
The other 12 countries decided on various forms of graduated access over a seven-year period, condemning the newcomers, some argue, to second-class membership.
And on 23 March, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that one of those 12 — Belgium — was also in breach of the principle of free movement by applying overly strict assessment procedures on the livelihood of EU nationals living there.
Until the court ruling, Belgium had required EU nationals from both old and new member states to have sufficient financial means if they wished to temporarily live in the country. The income of partners was not taken into account.
However, agreements between EU member states only refer to the possession of sufficient means. These means do not necessarily have to be personal means.
Both old and new member states must comply with the means of support guidelines.
And a source at the Belgian Justice Ministry accepted that — as there is no course of appeal to an ECJ ruling — Belgium had "no choice" but to fall into line with the ruling.
He said that while Belgium did not oppose the opening of labour markets to people from old member states, there were "solid" reasons for imposing such guidelines on newcomers.
These included, he said, a wish to ensure that there was not an influx of people from new member states merely relying on welfare payments.
"This could have placed an unnecessary burden on our social security system," he said.
Brussels lawyer Jacques Derenne who works with law firm Lovells said that while Belgium's infringement may appear to be a mere technicality it was, nonetheless, an important one.
"The Belgian case is not really about immigration but, rather, revolves around one of the four freedoms of the EU — mobility of labour," he said.
"That includes the right for EU nationals to move to another EU member state to take up employment, irrespective of their personal means. As such, it is rather significant.
"The law can be easily and quickly adapted without going before the Belgian Parliament so there is really no excuse for not implementing it very soon.
*quote1*"If Belgium fails to satisfactorily make the necessary changes to its procedures, the European Commission could again bring an action before the ECJ."
A spokesman for the European Commission's justice directorate-general said the EC expected Belgium to "fully comply" with the ECJ ruling.
The EC also said it was not aware of any other member state breaking the regulations and now considers the matter closed.
Tackling labour shortages
Some Belgian companies have taken a close interest in the court ruling and hope that a change in the law will now help tackle labour shortages in some sectors.
"Whatever some may say, Belgium needs more immigrants to meet the labour demand across a whole range of sectors, from administration and management to medicine and agriculture," the personnel manager of a large IT firm said.
"I would like to see Belgium take a more liberal line because I believe worker mobility would help attract the most dynamic of immigrants to our country. I am sure this would be positive for many companies and the Belgian economy."
A spokesperson for DHL Benelux said: "We certainly welcome and, indeed, encourage anything which will lead to greater labour mobility".