Mr Ruiz Zambrano and his wife, both Columbian nationals, applied for asylum in Belgium due to the civil war in Columbia. The Belgian authorities refused to grant them refugee status and ordered them to leave Belgium.
The couple continued to reside in Belgium while waiting for their applications to have their residence situation regularised. Mr Ruiz Zambrano’s wife gave birth to two children who acquired Belgian nationality. Although he did not hold a work permit, Mr Ruiz Zambrano signed an employment contract for an unlimited period to work full-time with a company established in Belgium. Consequently, at the time of the birth of his first child to hold Belgian nationality, he had sufficient resources from his working activities to provide for his family. Through his work, statutory deductions made for social security and the payment of employer contributions.
Mr Ruiz Zambrano then had a number of periods of unemployment and accordingly applied for unemployment benefit. Those applications were refused because, in the view of the Belgian authorities, he did not comply with the foreigners’ residence requirements under Belgian legislation and he was not entitled to work in Belgium. Mr and Mrs Ruiz Zambrano also lodged an application to take up residence in Belgium, in their capacity as ascendants of a Belgian national. The Belgian authorities rejected that application, however, taking the view that they had intentionally omitted to take the necessary steps with the Columbian authorities to have their children recognised as Columbian nationals, precisely in order to regularise their own residence in Belgium. Mr Ruiz Zambrano brought legal proceedings challenging the decisions refusing his applications for residence and unemployment benefit on the ground that, as an ascendant of minor Belgian children, he is entitled to reside and work in Belgium.
The Tribunal du travail de Bruxelles (Employment Tribunal in Brussels) before which the proceedings challenging the rejection decisions were brought, asked the Court of Justice whether Mr Ruiz Zambrano could rely on European Union law to reside and work in Belgium. By that question, the Belgian court asks whether European Union law is applicable in the present case, even though Mr Ruiz Zambrano’s children have never exercised their right of free movement within the territory of the Member States.
The Court of Justice stated that Article 20 TFEU conferred the status of citizen of the Union on every person holding the nationality of a Member State. Since Mr Ruiz Zambrano’s second and third children possessed Belgian nationality, they were Union citizens also.
The Court noted that citizenship of the Union was intended to be the fundamental status of nationals of the Member States and that Article 20 TFEU precluded national measures which had the effect of depriving citizens of the Union of the genuine enjoyment of the substance of the rights conferred by virtue of their status as citizens of the Union. Belgium’s refusal to let Mr Ruiz Zambrano and his wife live and work in Belgium had such an effect.
The Court assumed that this refusal would lead to a situation where the Ruiz Zambrano children, citizens of the Union, would have to leave the territory of the Union in order to accompany their parents. In those circumstances, those citizens of the Union would, as a result, be unable to exercise the substance of the rights conferred on them by virtue of their status as citizens of the Union.
Accordingly, the Court held that Article 20 TFEU precludes a Member State from refusing a third country national upon whom his minor children, who are European Union citizens, are dependent, a right of residence in the Member State of residence and nationality of those children, and from refusing to grant a work permit to that third country national, in so far as such decisions deprive those children of the genuine enjoyment of the substance of the rights attaching to the status of European Union citizen.