By Jan Strupczewski and Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union nations can deny benefits to EU migrants unless they have previously worked in their host country, the EU's top lawyer said on Thursday, in a case brought by Germany and keenly watched in Britain.
Even actively seeking work is not enough of a justification to claim benefits at the same time, European Court of Justice Advocate General Melchior Wathelet said.
His opinion, which judges must consider in their final ruling, was likely to be welcomed by Eurosceptic parties in the 28-nation EU which argue that governments must do more to stop "benefit tourism" by EU migrants.
Wathelet's view reinforces the precedent set by a November ruling that said EU migrants can be denied benefits if they move to a country with no intention of finding a job. [ID:nL6N0T1262]
"This confirms that the right to live and work elsewhere in the EU is not the same as the right to claim benefits," said Catherine Bearder, a British liberal in the European Parliament.
Immigration has become a divisive topic in Europe as it struggles to recover from years of economic crisis.
British Prime Minister David Cameron repeated his call last week for a "wide-scale change to the rules on welfare and benefits", in a reference to popular suspicion that EU immigrants come to Britain to scrounge off the state.
Cameron has promised that, if he wins a May election, he will renegotiate Britain's relationship with Europe on issues such as immigration and then hold a referendum on its membership of the bloc by 2017.
In his opinion, the European Court of Justice's Wathelet said however that those who had worked in their host country should not be penalised.
Germany was therefore wrong to stop benefits to a Swedish mother who became unemployed, Wathelet said.
Swedish mother-of-three Nazifa Alimanovic stopped receiving social benefits in Germany in 2012 after becoming unemployed. Alimanovic had worked in Germany between June 2010 and May 2011. Germany's Federal Social Court brought the case to the EU court.
"Exclusion from social assistance benefits, provided for by the German legislation, is not applicable to the situation of Ms Alimanovic," Wathelet said.
Alimanovic's three children had been born in Germany and attended school there.
(Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Andrew Roche)