On Tuesday April 24, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) published a judgment of the Grand Chamber, Kamberaj v IPES. In the judgment, the court stated that the equality provisions in Article 11 of the Long Term Residents Directive, as well as Article 34 of the EU Charter which relates to right to social and housing assistance, preclude a Member State from treating long-term resident third-country nationals and EU citizens differently for the purposes of the provision and allocation of housing benefit.
The case of Kamberaj v IPES involved an Albanian national, Mr Kamberaj, who had lived in the Autonomous Province of Bolzano in Italy since 1994, where he possessed an indefinite residence permit. From 1998 until 2008, Mr. Kamberaj had received housing benefit which was provided to him on the basis of a provincial law. In 2010, Mr Kamberaj was informed by the authorities that he was no longer entitled to claim housing benefit because the fund which had been allocated for third-country nationals was now exhausted. Mr Kamberaj brought proceedings against the Istituto perl’Edilizia sociale della Provincia autononma di Bolanzo (IPES) on the basis that Italian nationals were automatically entitled to housing assistance, whereas long-term resident third-country nationals were not. In his application, Mr Kamberaj relied on provisions of the Race Directive, the Long Term Residents Directive and Article 34 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The court pointed out that since the grounds on which one could claim discrimination under the Race Directive did not include nationality, Mr Kamberaj was not entitled to rely on the provisions of the Race Directive. The decision therefore hinged on the court’s interpretation of Article 11 of the Long Term Residents (LTR) Directive, which was examined in light of Article 34 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Freedoms. Article 11 of the LTR Directive sets out the instances where the long-term resident should be afforded equal treatment with nationals of the Member State. Article 11 however also permits the Member State a great deal of discretion in terms of its power to limit the benefits offered to long-term residents, which are available to nationals of the Member State. It must be noted that Article 11 of the LTR Directive was one of the most divisive aspects of the legislation when it was being debated by Member States. Article 11 of the LTR Directive in particular has been criticised as undermining the general spirit of the LTR Directive, owing to the level of discretion that is afforded to Member States to limit the rights of long-term resident third-country nationals living in the state. The court’s interpretation of Article 11 of the LTR Directive was therefore very welcome, particularly as the LTR Directive has recently been extended to include beneficiaries of international protection within its scope.
The most important aspect of the judgment was the court’s interpretation of Article 11(4), which the state body relied upon to deny Mr Kamberaj access to housing benefit on the basis of his legal status as a long-term resident and as a non-EU citizen. Article 11(4) of the LTR Directive permits the Member State to limit the social assistance and social benefit made available to long-term resident third-country nationals to that which amount to “core benefits”.
In Kamberaj however, the court made it plain that this provision was to be strictly interpreted by the Member State. The court first states that the in order for the bodies of the Member State to rely on the derogation implied in Article 11(4) of the LTR Directive, that Member State must clearly state from the outset that they intend to rely on such a derogation. Secondly, as the key aim of the LTR Directive is to ensure that the integration of the long-term resident into the Member State, this must be taken account of by the Member State when it determines the meaning of “core benefits” for the purposes of Article 11(4) of the LTR Directive. Finally, the court stated that the refusal to provide Mr Kamberaj with housing benefit must also be interpreted in light of Article 34 of the EU Charter, which sets out that the Member State must provide a certain level of support to third country nationals with long-term residence which would allow them to attain a “decent existence”.
The Grand Chamber ruled that EU law precludes national or regional legislation which treats third-country nationals who are long-term residents differently from EU citizens with regard to the allocation of funds for housing benefit. The court therefore recognises access to housing benefit as a “core benefit” for the purposes of Article 11(4) of the LTR Directive. In this regard, the EU acknowledges a right to equal treatment for persons entitled to housing benefit intended to ensure a “decent existence” for anyone who does not have the resources to maintain such a standard themselves. The ruling marks a significant step forward for access to socio-economic rights for long-term resident third-country nationals living in Member States.
The judgment however still does not guarantee third country nationals’ access to all rights to which Union citizens are entitled. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note the manner in which the court uses the provisions relating to access to social assistance under the EU Charter alongside the concept of integration as it provided for in the LTR Directive to limit the ability of the state to deny access of long-term residents to certain rights enjoyed by EU citizens.
In recent years, it has been suggested that the idea of integration has been used to limit the rights of immigrants and refugees living in Member States by requiring them to undergo integration courses and tests, in some cases denying access to a long-term residence status if such requirements are not met. The ruling in Kamberaj however emphasises how the concept of integration can also be used to limit the power of Member States from discriminating against long-term resident third country nationals in terms of their access to social assistance.