The Advocate General of the ECJ issued an important opinion in January on the status of third-country nationals who are long-term residents in the EU and the integration requirements that may be imposed by Member States. The opinion concerned Case C-579/13 P & S v Commissie Sociale Zekerheid Breda, College van Burgemeester en Wethouders van de gemeente Amstelveen. In the view of the Advocate General, an integration obligation imposed on long-term residents is compatible with EU law, provided that it does not constitute a condition for the maintenance of that status.
The legal issue debated in this case is the extent to which the EU Migration Law (in particular the Council Directive 2003/109/EC) establishes limits to national provisions imposing integration obligations on third-country nationals residing in their countries.
The Directive 2003/109/EC on the status of third-country nationals who are long-term residents acknowledges the integration of third-country nationals who are long-term residents in a Member State as a key element in promoting economic and social cohesion and establishes that Member States “may require third-country nationals to comply with integration conditions, in accordance with national law” (article 5, paragraph 2 and article 15, paragraph 3 of the referred Directive).
In the Netherlands, the integration obligation imposed on foreign nationals was introduced in 2007 in article 21, paragraph 1 of the Vreemdelingwet, and includes the obligation to pass an exam testing Dutch-language proficiency and basic knowledge of Netherlands society. Failure to comply with this obligation in time entails a fine.
In the present case, P, a United States national who has been resident in the Netherlands since 2002, obtained long-term resident status in 2008. In the same year, the Commissie Sociale Zekerheid Breda (Commission for Social Security, Breda) informed P that she was obliged under Netherlands law to satisfy the integration requirement and was required to pass the corresponding examination within a certain period. P began an integration training programme but interrupted it in August 2008 on health grounds and never resumed it.
S, a New Zealand national born in former Yugoslavia, has lived in the Netherlands since 2000 and obtained long-term resident status in 2007. In 2010, the College van burgemeester en wethouders van de gemeente Amstelveen (the Mayor and Executive Board of the Municipality of Amstelveen) informed S that she must meet the integration requirement and was required to pass the corresponding examination within a certain period.
Both P and S challenged the decisions in question before the Centrale Raad van Beroep (Higher Social Security Court) arguing that, as persons holding long-term resident status, they should be treated in the same way as Dutch citizens and should therefore not be subject to integration obligations. The Centrale Raad van Beroep referred to the Court of Justice questions for a preliminary ruling in the case in order to determine whether it is compatible with Directive 2003/109/EC to impose an integration obligation on third-country nationals who have acquired longterm resident status.
In his opinion delivered on 28 January 2015, the Advocate General Maciej Szpunar argued that national provisions which introduce integration measures for a long-term resident come within the scope of EU law. Consequently, the margin of discretion which Member States are allowed in this area may not be exercised in such a way as to affect adversely the objective of the Directive, namely to promote economic and social cohesion within the EU. He further argued that national provisions must also comply with the principle of proportionality, meaning that the integration obligation must not make it excessively difficult for those with long-term resident status to exercise the rights which they derive from that status. According to the Advocate General, the introduction of a compulsory examination designed to test language proficiency or knowledge of society does not contribute to the attainment of the objective pursued by integration measures, that is to say, to facilitate the social integration of the person concerned. In the Advocate General’s view, integration measures must be measures designed to foster social integration in the society concerned and may not establish qualifications which are required in order to continue residing in a particular State.
In light of these considerations, the Advocate General proposed that the Court rule that Directive 2003/109/EC does not prohibit the introduction of integration measures for third-country nationals who are long-term residents in an EU country. However, these measures should have the exclusive purpose of facilitating the integration of the person concerned, rather than constituting a condition for the maintenance of that status or for the exercise of the rights which derive from it. In conclusion, the Advocate General advised the Court to reject the obligation to pass a language examination as a measure to promote integration of third-country nationals in the Netherlands.