Austria court strikes down law aimed at cutting benefits for immigrants

Austria's constitutional court on Tuesday overturned key provisions of a law passed by the previous right-wing coalition government, including benefit cuts aimed at immigrants.

Austria court strikes down law aimed at cutting benefits for immigrants
Austrian citizens and asylum seekers march during a pro-refugee protest called "Let them stay" in Vienna, Austria on November 26, 2016. AFP

In its judgement the court said that the requirement in the law for claimants to prove proficiency in German or English was unconstitutional.

The law had foreseen a cut of 300 euros ($334) in benefits — from the normal minimum of 863 euros — for those with insufficient German or English.

The court similarly found against a provision which curtailed payments to families the more children they had, saying it “disadvantaged families with multiple children in a way which is not objectively justifiable and  unconstitutional”.

The cuts could lead to “the necessary living conditions for families with multiple children not being guaranteed”, the court said.

Church groups and anti-poverty groups had criticised the measures when the previous government put them forward last year.

That administration was a coalition of the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) and far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), both of which had made a crackdown on immigration one of their key messages.

That government collapsed in May over a corruption scandal that engulfed the FPOe and led to new elections in September.

The OeVP is currently negotiating with the Greens to form a new coalition.

Tuesday's decision comes only days after the constitutional court struck down another law passed by the OeVP-FPOe government, which would have enabled surveillance of encrypted messages.

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‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.