Labour Mobility in Europe in Times of Crisis

By Elena Magriñá Sánchez | 9 May 2013

To quote this document: Elena Magriñá Sánchez, “Labour Mobility in Europe in Times of Crisis”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 9 May 2013,, displayed on 21 March 2018

With a youth unemployment rate of 56% in Spain, 58% in Greece and over 30% in Italy and Portugal, young Europeans are taking advantage of the free movement of people and labour, which has become a symbol for European integration. Similarly, other countries such as Germany, which has a youth unemployment rate of only 8% and a shortage of qualified workers, benefits from it as well. This fundamental freedom constitutes one of the most important rights that the EU guarantees to its citizens.

For the first time in 1968, the free movement of EU workers became the first of the four basic freedoms of the European Market (free movement of goods, services, and capital) to be implemented. Geographical labour mobility is said to be a strong instrument to promote fast economic adjustment and growth. In the last decades, in spite of the efforts of the European Comission and many policy-makers, labour mobility in Europe has been rather low, but EU citizens still take advantage of it: from students through the European Erasmus programme to families looking for new opportunities outside their national borders.

The Threat of Labour Migration within Europe

European labour market mobility became a policy issue in 2004 with the enlargement of the EU, in which ten new countries became EU member states, representing the largest single expansion. A year later, the Commission carried out an Eurobarometer survey on geographical and labour market mobility. The findings highlighted that this issue represented indeed a major policy challenge in the EU and that the main factor discouraging geographical mobility  was the fear of losing one’s social network. However, the main factors triggering mobility were job- and income- related, as well as a desire to “discover new things”. All in all, mobility was seen as both an opportunity and a challenge for Europe. Back in 2004, newspapers warned about the “flood of migrants” who would steal national jobs or sign up for welfare benefits. At the time, twelve of the existing fifteen EU members imposed “transitional arrangements”, restricting labour from the East (some more than others), although the Commission in the end claimed that labour flows from the ten new member states had been “too small to affect either job security or wages in the EU15.”

Today, in the wake of the financial crisis, labour mobility has started to rise, mainly due to the fact that Europeans are becoming more willing to relocate. While the Deutsche Bank Report (2011) claims that internal migration can be an effective way of reducing disequilibria on the labour markets, some European countries have been alerting about the risks of an increase of (the world rise already used in previous sentence) unemployment in the periphery of Europe. Recently, in the United Kingdom, Prime minister David Cameron has been toughening his stance on immigration, presenting measures that would potentially reduce the “pull factor” that attracts migrants to the UK. The justification given for such policy is that the pressure of immigration on public services has become a “widely-held concern.” Nevertheless, if the financial crisis has indeed exacerbated the imbalances on the labour markets in the euro area,  migration flows – mainly to Germany – have effectively responded to the problem of high unemployment in the euro periphery  according to the abovementioned Deutsche Bank report (2011). The other side of the coin, however, is the brain drain from Southern Europe to Germany and other rich European countries. While the fact that students and young Europeans are able to live and work abroad is a positive experience for them, both personally and professionally, in the future, countries will be competing against each other to attract the best talents, especially those countries that are now losing skilled labour due to their economic difficulties. 

Benefiting from the Free Movement of People and Labour

According to the Commission, EU citizens are entitled to look for a job in another EU country, where they can work and reside freely, without needing any permit. They can stay there even after their employment contracts have finished and enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social tax advantages. In certain  cases, EU nationals may also have certain types of health and social security coverage transferred to the country in which they go to seek work. This fundamental freedom constitutes one of the most important individual rights that the EU guarantees to its citizens. Over the last forty years, the principle of the free movement of people has been evolving constantly and growing stronger.

The European Commission and Eurostat have presented data showing that 2.3% of EU citizens (11.3 million people) reside in a Member State other than the state of which they are citizen, and many more exercise this right at some point in their life. That number has grown by more than 40% since 2001. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, 10% of people polled in EU-27 replied that they had lived and worked in another country at some point in the past, while 17% intended to take advantage of free movement in the future

However, according to the European Commission, there is still a need to overcome legal, administrative and practical obstacles to exercising that right. At the national level, migration (and immigration) can be seen as a threat that needs to be controlled by national governments. It is certainly a sensitive issue for some Member States, who do not want to lose their sovereignty in certain policy areas.

All in all, at the EU level it is important to promote European integration and the idea of a common European identity. Thus, many obstacles to mobility have been abolished since the establishment of the principle of the free movement of workers. All of the legal developments which have promoted this right have affected the lives of European citizens in one way or another, empowering them to cross their national borders, benefit from equal treatment and have the opportunity to live abroad. A lot of progress has been made so far, but there are still some obstacles that need to be eliminated. In constant change, the promotion of mobility is one of the objectives of the new Europe 2020 Strategy that will seek to have a positive effect on growth and employment in the European Union.


Image Source : EUR-LEX Access to EU Law

To go further


To Read

  • The Social and Economic Council in the Netherlands, “Labour Mobility in the European Union”, The Hague, 2001
  • Deutsche Bank Research, “Labour mobility in the euro area”, Reports on European Integration, EU Monitor 85, 2011
  • The Economist, “Europe’s labour mobility: When East meets West”, 2006
  • European Commission, “Europeans and mobility: first results of an EU-wide survey”, Eurobarometer survey on geographic and labour market mobility, 2006
  • Sparrow, Andrew, “Cameron’s immigration speech: Politics live blog”, 2013 


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