Policy paper 161

De jure freedom of movement and de facto mobility in the EU internal market

In this Policy paper, Nathalie Spath and Paul-Jasper Dittrich identify the biggest barriers European workers are confronted with in other EU countries, and give recommendations for action for a higher mobility.

In this Policy paper, Nathalie Spath and Paul-Jasper Dittrich, research fellows in our German office, the Jacques Delors Institut – Berlin, identify the biggest barriers European workers are confronted with in other EU countries, and give recommendations for action for a higher mobility.  

A high mobility of labour as a factor of production is an important precondition for long-term efficiency gains and increases in productivity within the EU internal market, especially in combination with a high mobility of capital as a factor of production. However, the fact that all EU citizens have the right to live and work in another member state is even more important.

The freedom of movement of people within the internal market is one of the EU’s fundamental freedoms and has been enshrined in EU primary law since 1968. The de jure freedom of movement is spelled out in detail in various regulations and directives of secondary law. However, in many areas this process has not yet reached completion: There are no watertight guarantees when it comes to the cross-border portability of pension rights and welfare benefits. Moreover, when practising a profession in another member state EU citizens are confronted with the fact that many professions in the EU are still regulated on the national level and that many professional qualifications are not automatically recognized. A harmonization of these areas would enable more EU citizens to work in other member states. More individual opportunities make for an increase in the inherent economic potential of labour mobility.

Codified de jure freedom of movement exists side by side with de facto geographical labour mobility. On account of certain structural barriers, the latter continues to be significantly lower than in the United States. This is partly due to the language barrier, and partly to the fact that there is no Europe-wide employment agency. EU mobility programmes, which also cater for trainee vacancies, can help young EU citizens in particular to improve their career prospects in another EU country. Such programmes can build on experiences garnered on the national level. An analysis of migration streams in the aftermath of the euro area crisis shows that mobility has continued to increase in absolute terms, and that this increase is largely the result of migration from eastern Europe to western Europe. The euro area crisis has led to a south-to-north migration stream, although the numbers involved are relatively small. Whereas the unemployment levels in the south of the continent continue to be high, there is a growing demand for skilled workers in other countries. A policy which specifically seeks to encourage geographical mobility needs to bear these developments in mind.

On 23 June the UK is voting on whether or not to remain in the EU. A Yes vote will lead to a partial discrimination of European employees in the United Kingdom. In the course of the refugee crisis and in response to Islamist terrorism there have been calls to reverse the policy of open borders. The freedom of movement, commuting daily across open borders and the equal treatment of EU citizens are no longer self-evident. A new and positive storyline is urgently needed. It should emphasize the importance of labour mobility and the way in which it can generate individual and general economic benefits for the EU.

This Policy paper is also available in German.