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Do all EU citizens have an unconditional right to social security?

Legislation
Fact-check

20 Minutes, France

29 March 2019, Updated: 2 April 2019

According to a survey conducted for a European fact-checking network, 14% of French interviewees believed that access to social security anywhere in the EU is an unconditional right. But there exist rules to restrict this access.

Original article in 20Minutes (in French).

Pensioners, students, wage-earners: in 2014 there were 14.3 million European citizens living in an EU country other than their own. This was 2.8% of the EU’s total population, and their access to social protection has been a subject of controversy. The European Commission is regularly accused of encouraging “social dumping”, particularly via the status of posted workers.

Access to social security is restricted in the EU. Nonetheless, 27% of Poles, 25% of Spaniards, 16% of Italians and Swedes, 15% of Germans and 14% of French think it is “completely true” that all European citizens have unconditional access to the social security system in whichever EU state they choose to settle in. That is the finding of a survey by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)* in collaboration with Exeter University as part of the FactCheckEU** project.

No: access to social security is not automatic

Access to social-security systems is not automatic – countries are free to make their own rules to regulate access to their systems. The EU guarantees four principles:

  • Equality of access: citizens settled in a country other than their own have “the same rights and obligations as the nationals of the country where [they] are covered”, according to the EU Commission.
  • Consideration is to be given to “previous periods of insurance, work and foreign residency in the calculation of benefits”, according to the European Parliament.
  • A single legislation: citizens enjoying social benefits are “subject to the legislation of a single country and make payments solely in that country”.
  • Exportability: benefit payments by one member state may be received in another one. There are limits to this principle.

The EU decides the state in which a citizen may use social security

The EU plays a coordinating role for EU members – its rules define which member state (the state of origin, or the host state) a citizen may apply for benefits in. Rights to social security are different depending on whether the citizen is a student, a pensioner, a posted worker, a cross-border worker, a civil servant or a mobile worker (meaning an employee working in a country other than his or her own).

Students remain attached to the social-security system of their home country. If they need medical care they can make use of the local healthcare system by presenting their EU health-insurance card.

Pensioners and students are a small burden

Retired people generally receive a pension from their country of residence. For complementary pensions, where the country of retirement is different from the one of former employment, the pensioner benefits from “the same rights as persons who remained in the country”.

Such pensioners and students exert only a limited strain on the social security of their host countries. In 2013, “economically non-active” mobile citizens made up between 0.7% and 1% of the EU population. They represent only a “very small share” of those receiving welfare payments like pensions, invalidity benefit and tax-funded unemployment benefits, according to a Commission study cited by the Jacques Delors Institute.

Flexibility for cross-border workers

Cross-border workers are insured in the country where they work, with an exception for healthcare and unemployment benefits. For healthcare, they may choose either country; if they lose their job, their right to benefits concerns their country of residence.

Civil servants on foreign postings are covered by the healthcare service of the country where they work, a right which extends to their family.

516 000 posted workers in France in 2017

The case of posted workers attracts the most attention. Several EU directives restrict this status so as to avoid abuses (concerning, for example, “letterbox companies” and posted workers who earn less than their local peers despite European rules). In 2014 these workers, whose stay in their host country is supposed to be temporary, accounted for 0.7% of jobs in the EU.

*Survey of 6067 internet users in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden and Poland, 15-22 February.

Translated by Harry Bowden, VoxEurop

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