ORIGINAL PUBISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS
by Steve Peers
When can a Member State require immigrants to undertake integration courses? The Court of Justice dealt squarely with this issue for the first time in today’s judgment in P and S, which concerned the application of the EU’s Directive on the long-term residence of non-EU citizens. (The UK, Ireland and Denmark have an opt-out from this law).
The judgment has a broader relevance, since the EU Directive on family reunion for non-EU citizens also provides for Member States to adopt integration conditions. On the other hand, EU free movement law does not provide for Member States to impose such conditions on EU citizens or their family members. As for Turkish nationals, the EU-Turkey association agreement does not provide for such a condition either, but Member States may impose one subject to a standstill rule in most cases (see last year’s Dogan judgment, discussed here).
Today’s judgment turns on the wording of the long-term residence Directive, which states that Member States ‘may require third-country nationals to comply with integration conditions, in accordance with national law’. The case concerned non-EU citizens who already had long-term resident status under the Directive, but Dutch law still requires them to take civic integration courses and penalises them with a fine every time they fail. A later change to Dutch law requires non-EU citizens to pass these courses before they get long-term residence status, but that later version of the law was not directly at issue in this case.
According to the Court, the requirement to take integration courses does not as such infringe the Directive, first and foremost because the Directive clearly permits an integration condition to be imposed before obtaining long-term resident status. Next, the Court ruled that the requirement did not breach the equal treatment rule set out in the Directive, since Dutch nationals could be presumed to have knowledge of Dutch society and the Dutch language, whereas non-EU citizens could not.
However, that was not the end of the Court’s analysis. It then focussed on whether the national rules undercut the effectiveness of the Directive. The Directive had as its main aim the integration of non-EU citizens, and the Court stated that learning the national language and about the host State could facilitate communication with Dutch citizens, and ‘encourages interaction and the development of social relations’. Acquiring a knowledge of Dutch also ‘makes it less difficult’ to find work and take up training courses. The integration requirement therefore contributed to the aims of the Directive.
The Court went on to say that there were some limits upon what Member States can do, as regards ‘the level of knowledge required to pass the civic integration examination’, ‘accessibility of the courses and the material necessary to prepare’ for the exams, the level of registration fees and ‘specific individual circumstances, such as age, illiteracy or level of education’. But the Court seemed most concerned about the amount of the fines, which were quite high and would be imposed for every failure, or even where the non-EU citizen had not sat the exam within the required time. The fines were also imposed on top of the high fees to sit the exam. So in principle this aspect of the system infringed EU law, although it was left to the national court to apply the Court’s ruling in practice. Finally, the Court stated that it was irrelevant whether the persons concerned already had long-term resident status, since (in this case) it was not a condition for getting or retaining that status.
The Court’s ruling makes clear that Member States can in principle impose integration requirements for long-term residence status, subject to the principle of effectiveness. The main feature of that principle in this case was the fees for failing (or not sitting) the exam, in conjunction with the fees for sitting the exam. Obviously the Dutch government is now obliged to lower those fees, and other Member States’ rules could be challenged on the same basis. The ruling is obviously particularly relevant to less wealthy migrants who would struggle to pay the fines and test fees several times over.
Although the Court did not rule in any detail on the other limits which EU law imposes upon national integration requirements, such limits certainly exist, as regards the level of knowledge needed to pass, the accessibility of tests and materials, and ‘specific individual circumstances’. It is not clear from the judgment exactly how Member States are obliged to take account of such circumstances – whether by means of a complete exemption from the test or a different version of it. But it should be noted that the list of specific circumstances mentioned by the Court is not exhaustive (‘such as’).
While the judgment clearly implies that Member States may even withhold long-term residence status if an integration test is not passed, the Court did not rule on that issue as such. So it remains open to argue that there may be stricter limits or other factors to consider when Member States impose an integration condition to acquire that status.
Nor did the Court rule on whether the failure to meet an integration condition could be a ground to lose long-term resident status. The Directive does not list this as one of the possible grounds for loss of that status, and it should follow from the objective of the Directive that the list of grounds which could lead to such a loss of status is exhaustive. This also follows from the structure of the Directive: if failure of an integration test could lead to loss of status, why did the drafters of the Directive only mention integration tests in the clause dealing with acquisition of that status?
Today’s judgment is only the first in a line of cases upcoming concerning integration conditions (the next batch of cases concern the parallel clause in the family reunion Directive). As a starting point, the Court has struck a good balance between ensuring that immigrants fit into society and the need to prevent integration tests forming a disguised means of excluding migrants from ever really fitting in despite their genuine efforts.