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Is Europe Faltering in Addressing its Multiple Migration Challenges?

Is Europe Faltering in Addressing its Multiple Migration Challenges?

In the midst of an enduring, tense, and multifaceted debate about European migration, a new target group has emerged in 2013: mobile European Union (EU) citizens. The right to work across Europe has long been enshrined as a fundamental right of EU citizenship, and is considered a key advantage of EU membership as well as a unique element in migration management. However, a number of interlocking concerns have emerged in recent months, fueled in part by euroskeptic parties (such as the UK Independence Party), and more hard-line anti-immigration parties such as the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands. The debate has three broad dimensions.

Issue No. 5 of Top Ten of 2013

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First, that new flows, primarily to Northwestern Europe, are placing undue pressure on labor markets and communities. Free movement restrictions on two of the newest members of the European Union — Romania and Bulgaria — will end in January 2014, sparking a wave of predictions about the number of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens who will choose to work elsewhere in Europe. Despite the enormous uncertainty inherent in such calculations, several governments (notably the United Kingdom) have embarked on campaigns to discourage new migration from the Southwestern corner of Europe. But the economic crisis has also catalyzed a new flow of young, unemployed citizens emigrating from those Southern countries bearing the brunt of the crisis and moving north. While these groups remain a small proportion of total EU mobility, the movement has awakened debate over the possible impact that the loss of a young, able workforce, will have on the future recovery and growth of the economically hardest-hit Member States.

A linked concern relates to the impact that free movement has on public welfare systems or, more bluntly, that mobile EU citizens "take out" more than they "pay in." Social support systems differ enormously across Europe, as do the entitlements that EU citizens can claim in each country, which complicates analysis as to the veracity of this claim. However, a recent report commissioned by the EU Commission highlighted that mobile EU citizens are more likely to be in employment than their native counterparts across Europe, and account for a very small proportion of benefit claimants. In addition, some EU countries have expressed concerns that some EU citizens are fraudulently "gaming" the benefit systems of other EU countries. Once more, a recent report compiled by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding suggests that these numbers are also quite low overall.

Finally, some countries have expressed concern about the long-term integration of the mobile EU population. On the one hand, language classes are not always publicly available for EU citizens, as the target group for such policies are non-EU citizens. On the other hand, the mobility of EU citizens can be much higher — moving repeatedly for short periods of time — which affects communities as a whole, and raises questions about how deeply governments should encourage their integration. More recently, some cities have expressed concern about the increasing numbers of destitute and homeless EU citizens on their streets, that is, individuals who find themselves without work but have no means to return home.

Many of these concerns are hard to measure: predictions of future flows from new Member States have been notoriously inaccurate in the past, while assessing the relative contribution of a fast-flowing EU citizen population relies on incomplete data. The focus on working life has also obscured the movement of students, researchers, and other groups that develop their skills at universities across Europe, and the small, but growing, number of older Europeans choosing to retire in warmer climates, bringing their own set of public service challenges.

EU officials are at pains to point out that free movement is not migration, but mobility, and that everyone in Europe benefits from this right. However, it would seem that this message has not resonated with publics who are largely indifferent to the distinction between migrant and EU citizen when it comes to their own communities.

As the free movement debates rage on, it is clear that immigration has become an intractable challenge for policymakers on all fronts. The continuing flow of desperate migrants crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats has thrown a spotlight on the adequacy and sustainability of Europe's common policy with respect to asylum and border management. (See Issue No. 8: Questions of Immigration Control Preoccupy Policymakers Worldwide as Humanitarian Arrivals Continue, and in Some Cases, Surge) In addition, governments continue to question the efficacy of their efforts to improve integration outcomes for immigrants in cities across Europe, at a time when formulating any kind of positive political narrative on immigration has become deeply elusive. (See Issue No. 9: Greece Confronts Golden Dawn As the Far Right Takes Aim at the European Union)


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European Commission. 2013. Free movement: Vice-President Reding's intervention at the Justice and Home Affairs Council. SPEECH/13/789, October 8, 2013. Available online.

EUObserver.com. 2013. UK and Germany dislike EU 'welfare tourism' plan. December 6, 2013. Available online.

Express. 2013. New report estimates at least 385,000 Romanians and Bulgarians will flock to UK. December 5, 2013. Available online.

ICF GHK. 2013. A fact finding analysis on the impact on the Member States' social security systems of the entitlements of non-active intra-EU migrants to special non-contributory cash benefits and healthcare granted on the basis of residence. Report for DG Employment, Social Affairs, and Inclusion via DG Justice Framework Contract. Final report. Available online.