Economics / Politics

Making the case for free movement in the European Union

Free movement of workers is one of the founding pillars of the Single Market and, by extension, of the European Union. Free movement of citizens then followed in the 1990s, much supported by the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) during the past decade. Free movement can be seen is one of the concrete and visible faces of a European citizenship.

This key achievement of the European integration nevertheless has its critics who point to social dumping and benefit tourism and stir up anti-migrant and anti-EU feelings. In a context of economic crisis, populist speeches find a stronger echo, which is why pro-Europeans like JEF Europe must strongly make the case for free movement. This should, however, not simply take the form of a short catalogue of positive consequences of free movement for European citizens; we must go further than that by admitting that free movement of citizens also generates challenges, and it is our duty to think about potential solutions to these challenges.

The below constitutes an attempt to set a basis for reflection by identifying a number of reasons why intra-EU free movement should be upheld and a number of issues to be addressed if we are to effectively tackle the Eurosceptic discourse. Of course, it is not a comprehensive list and this basis should be enhanced through exchanges, academic research and readings, etc.

1. What are the benefits of free movement in the EU?

For the sake of clarity, it is appropriate to divide the list between economic and non-economic arguments.

1.1. Economic arguments

  • Demographic evolution

An ageing population and a demographic decline in nearly all Member States mean that the shrinking workforce will not be able to guarantee the sustainability of the public pension schemes without the help of immigrant workforce (and a significant reform of pension systems).

  • High unemployment in some Member States & the “Optimum Monetary Zone” theory

According to the OMZ theory, labour mobility is a key factor in ensuring the success of a single currency area like the Eurozone. Indeed, when a particular industry in a particular Member State is declining, generating rising unemployment, people should migrate to one or several Member States where the unemployment rate is low and where their skills would be needed.

In this regard, it is worthy to mention that free movement reduced unemployment in EEA countries by 6% in the aftermath of the economic crisis, according to an OECD and EU Commission report.

  • Skills shortages

While some Member States struggle to reduce unemployment, other Member States report (sometimes severe) skills shortages in some sectors and industries. Free movement can contribute to solve this problem by allowing unemployed people with the adequate skills to move to the countries where their skills are needed rather than remaining unemployed or taking jobs below their skills level. That being said, many migrant workers are employed “below their skills” also in their host Member State.

For the Member States receiving migrating workers, free movement also represents an opportunity to attract highly skilled people.

1.2. Non-economic arguments

  • Knowledge of other cultures & languages / development of European identity

This is a key point for pro-Europeans: the integration should not be limited to its economic dimension; instead, a European community of people should be developed and then put first. Quite obviously, the development of a European identity requires knowing the citizens of other Member States, acknowledging and respecting our differences, but also identifying our similarities and what holds us together.

  • Access to best potential training/learning/universities / Erasmus +

For students, free movement enables access to the best universities or training places in their respective disciplines. Admittedly, this will not benefit all Member States’ institutions, but the effects on the people’s skills and knowledge.

The benefits of student exchange programmes such as Erasmus + are linked to the precedent argument about the knowledge of other cultures and languages.

2. An open list of issues to solve if we want to preserve free movement

As stated in introduction, we cannot simply be satisfied with a list of good reasons to support free movement within the EU. Some problems are undeniable and require us to think about answers.

  • The educational challenge

Free movement means, for example, that students will all try to access the best universities. This may put a strain on some Member States’ spending for (higher) education, social benefits (e.g., financial help for housing), etc. Indeed, “mass” education entails costs.

– How to share the “burden”?

– Or how to ensure the Member State where students come to study will reap some benefits of its investment?

Furthermore, an on-going issue is the lack of mutual recognition of qualifications, which continues to be an obstacle for many workers wishing to start a career in another Member State, despite the EU efforts (including case law of the CJEU) to finally solve this issue.

How to incentivise Member States to fully mutually recognise qualifications?

  • The integration challenge

Let’s not turn a blind eye on this: even when people have decided to move to another Member State and maybe realised the move, they still face obstacles, such as:

– Language (which is why some countries with a low unemployment rate do not attract more people).

– Administrative requirements / bureaucracy.

– The attitude of the population in the host Member State may be hostile.

– Family migration: moving with a whole family is even harder than moving alone (finding a school for children, social security benefits, etc.).

– Some migrants also lack the will to properly integrate in their new State of residence.

  • Competition between “social systems”

Free movement of workers also means that Member States could compete to attract workers (and companies) by adjusting social norms and social security contributions.

– A linked issue is the posting of workers. What is our assessment of the adjustment to the relevant rules, starting with the Posted Workers Directive?

  • Discrimination between domestic and migrant workers

Also EU law has already done a lot to progress on this issue, it cannot be excluded that more needs to be done.

  • Social benefit tourism

This is one of the mantra of anti-EU, anti-immigration populist parties: lots of immigrants would move to countries offering generous social benefits and become a burden for these countries. However, several studies have shown this is just a myth: migrant workers often rely less on social security systems than local people do! But maybe we can figure out some way to improve the fight against a phenomenon which, even if marginal, nevertheless exists.

  • Brain drain

Free movement may incentivise the higher skilled people to move where they can find jobs. The risk is then that some Member States lose a workforce that is very important for the further economic development of these Member States. This may prevent them from closing the gap to the richest Member States.

– How to compensate the effects of a potential intra-EU brain drain?

Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

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