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Free Movement in Europe: Past and Present

Free Movement in Europe: Past and Present

Editor's Note: An updated version of this article was published on June 3, 2021. Click here to view that article.

Citizens of the European Union are free to cross intra-European borders in search of work and education opportunities, a higher standard of living, or even a more desirable climate. Germans work in the finance sector in London and Luxembourg, young Lithuanians work in fast food restaurants in Ireland, Italians study in British universities, and Swedes retire in sunny Spain.

As an area of 27 countries with more than 500 million inhabitants, the European Union is currently the world’s best research laboratory on legal, transnational migration.

But how did such an area of free movement come about? Why did the sovereign states of Europe decide to give up one of the fundamental rights that defines a nation state — that of deciding who can cross its borders? And to what end?

This article provides a short overview of the history of the European free movement regime, and discusses how mobility in Europe has been promoted and utilized throughout the past 60 years, the EU enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe in 2004 and 2007 and its impact on intra-European migration, and the challenges facing governments in this new era of EU mobility.

Post-War Economic Growth and Free Mobility

Over the past 60 years, Europe has undergone a shift from a region of net emigration to one of net immigration. During this time, a progressive lessening of restrictions on labor mobility between certain European countries has taken place.

In a way, this opening up of borders is a return to the past. Prior to the start of World War I in 1914, there were virtually no border controls or restrictions to labor mobility across the continent. During the war, however, the crossing of borders by foreigners began to be considered a security concern, and it was at this time that passports and visas were introduced in Europe.

Then in the 1950s, when Europe was beginning to recover from the devastation of World War II and experiencing a period of intense economic growth, labor mobility was again encouraged. Because the lack of skilled workers was seen as a threat to the economy, freedom of movement of qualified industrial workers was included in the treaties founding the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the current European Union, in 1957.

Over 8 million work permits were issued to foreigners in Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany (the original six members of the EEC) during the guest-worker period of 1958 to 1972. One-third of the foreign workers came from within the EEC; mainly from Italy, which was lagging behind in industrialization and suffered from high unemployment.

Workers were recruited through bilateral agreements from outside of Europe as well, especially to work in dirty, dangerous, and dull — the so-called 3D — jobs in the building, mining, and transportation sectors. Significant numbers of guest workers, for example, migrated from Turkey to Germany, from Algeria to France, and from the British Commonwealth countries to Britain.

The oil crisis that started in 1973 put an end to the open-doors policy regarding migrant workers, who were welcomed when the economy needed them but were expected to leave when times were hard. To the surprise of the host nations, however, most of the guest workers had come to stay. Moreover, many of these migrants had invited their families to join them in the destination countries, making family ties a more prominent cause for legal migration into Europe than active labor recruitment. This dilemma was neatly summarized by Swiss author Max Frisch: "We asked for workers, but human beings came."

Expanding Freedom of Movement: From Workers to Citizens

The right of free movement was initially intended for the economically active population: workers who were able to support themselves in the destination country. However, the texts of the founding treaties of the EEC, as well as the implementation of secondary legislation, left room for interpretation.

For years, European citizens have actively tested the boundaries of free mobility by challenging national administrative decisions in the European Court of Justice, which has played a fundamental role in widening the scope of free movement since the 1970s.

The rulings of the court since that time have gradually shifted policy from protecting primarily free movement of workers to the free movement of persons. In numerous individual cases, the court ruled that a Member State of the EEC could not deny entry to or deport a citizen of another EEC state on the basis of personal conduct unless that conduct would warrant equally punitive action if it were undertaken by a citizen of the former state.

The very definition of "worker" was also gradually expanded to include not only workers in industry, but those in seasonal or short-term employment and apprenticeship placements in Member States as well. Then in 1990, freedom of movement came to be guaranteed for students, pensioners, and the unemployed, as well as for their families.

The process of establishing freedom of movement for all nationals of Member States was finalized with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which created the European Union (EU) and introduced the concept of a common European citizenship.

As the process of encouraging migration and easing travel restrictions continued, emphasis was placed on reducing border control formalities within Europe. The Schengen Agreement, which first went into effect in 1995, created a common, essentially borderless area between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, wherein travel credentials were only required at the external borders of this area.

Two years later, the Schengen rules were incorporated into the Treaty of Amsterdam, and by 1999 European citizens were free to cross most intra-European borders without having to show their passports. As of this writing, the Schengen Area encompasses 25 European countries, three of which are not members of the European Union.

EU Expansion: The Mobility of Central and Eastern Europeans

In May 2004, the 15 states of the European Union (EU-15) welcomed ten new Member States in what was the largest expansion in the history of European integration.

The new Member States included eight countries (also called the A-8) from the other side of the former Iron Curtain: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which had still been part of the Soviet Union just 13 years earlier. At the same time, membership was granted to the island states of Cyprus and Malta.

The enlargement was the target of much controversy, as media estimates of the potential wave of economically motivated migration from the Central and Eastern European countries varied from 5 million to 40 million people. The rate of migration was estimated to be high because differences in income and the standard of living between the new Member States and the EU-15 were large: in 2003, the average wage in Latvia — the poorest among the new Member States — was just one-eighth of the average wage in the EU-15.

Although previous enlargements of the European Union had not resulted in major outflows of workers from new Member States, this time was thought to be different. It was feared that unlimited labor migration from the A-8 would cause serious problems for the labor markets of the EU-15. Similar fears related to wage dumping and potential "welfare tourism" to the EU-15 were expressed again when Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007.

During the accession negotiations, a transitional period of seven years was established so that each old Member State could determine when it was ready to open its borders to workers from the new Member States. The transitional measures were based on a "2+3+2 model," where the restrictions on labor market entry of new citizens had to be reviewed after two years, and again three years later. A final two-year phase of restrictions was permitted only in cases of serious disturbances within the individual labor markets of the EU-15. (The restrictions did not apply to the citizens of Cyprus and Malta.)

Free movement between all Member States was thus to be guaranteed by May 2011 at the latest for the citizens of the countries that joined in 2004, and by January 2014 for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania.

Only three Member States — Ireland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom — decided to open their borders immediately, the former two mainly because their growing and relatively open economies needed labor, and the latter because its regulated labor market was believed to be able to maintain wages at the collectively agreed upon levels.

Moreover, immigration at that time was not perceived as such a significant threat in these countries, as opposed to in France, for example, where a fictional character named the "Polish Plumber" was used to fuel fears on how skilled French workers were soon to be replaced by a flood of Eastern Europeans willing to work for less.

Around 70 percent of migrants from the A-8 have since headed for Ireland and the United Kingdom. Migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, on the other hand, have mostly chosen to go to Italy and Spain.

After the 2004 expansion, Poland was the source of the largest number of migrant workers among all new Member States. In fact, the number of Poles "temporarily residing" in another EU Member State more than doubled between 2004 and 2007, peaking at around 2 million — at that time a remarkable 5.3 percent of the country’s total population of 38 million. Lithuania, however, had the largest number of outgoing migrants relative to the size of its labor force, and some areas of the country have suffered from at least a temporary, yet very visible, youth drain.

In general, the unique histories, cultures, economic situations, and government policies in each new Member State seem to have influenced the number of outgoing migrants. For some countries, joining the European Union did not significantly increase outward migration. Hungary, where regional mobility within the country itself and interest in working abroad has been traditionally low, is one such case.

Despite the transitional measures adopted by some countries — Austria and Germany, the only two old Member States that chose to limit the entry of A-8 workers until May 2011, in particular — and the other various restrictions on labor market access that were put in place, workers from the new Member States in temporary, self-employment, or informal-sector positions retained their mobility.

Visa restrictions for citizens from Eastern European countries planning travel to the EU-15 had been lifted in 2001, so de facto labor mobility was already taking place before the new Member States officially joined the European Union and well before the transitional periods were over. Evidence of this fact comes from the Worker Registration Scheme implemented by the United Kingdom as a measure to monitor post-enlargement migrants. In the six months following the May 2004 enlargement, about 30 percent of the applications to the Scheme came from people who had already been living in the United Kingdom prior to the enlargement.

Intra-European Migrants

As the transitional period limiting free movement from Bulgaria and Romania comes to an end by January 2014, Europe will form an area where citizens from 31 countries — the 27 countries of the European Union (EU-27) plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland — can live, study, or work anywhere they wish. Crossing borders within this area has been made incredibly simple by policy, technology, the travel industry, and globalization.

But this reality presents a key problem for those studying European mobility: many forms of cross-border movement within this area remain uncounted by official statistics. European citizens cross borders unregistered, often remain essentially invisible in their destination countries, and are counted differently depending on their countries of origin and destination. In the United Kingdom, for example, the measurement of immigration relies mainly on the number of residents who were born abroad, while in other countries, such as Germany, it is determined by the number of residents who are not national citizens.

Statistics of emigrants are not clear cut either: Austrians are categorized as emigrants when they leave their country for more than three months, Belgians after six months, Finns if they intend to stay abroad for more than a year, and Poles and Romanians only if they indicate that they are leaving for good.

Due to the high degree of variance in policy across countries, citizenship is also not a reliable way to account for mobility. Belgium, for instance, requires three years of residence before citizenship can be granted, while Austria demands a minimum stay of ten years. Children born to foreign citizens are foreigners themselves in some countries, such as in Sweden and Finland, but can automatically become citizens of their country of birth in others, such as in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

For these reasons, statistics on how many intra-European migrants live in any particular Member State at any given time must be taken with a grain of salt. There are, however, some informative and relevant data.

The Overall Size of the Population

In Eurobarometer surveys, freedom of movement within the EU-27 is often seen as the best achievement of the European Union, ranking above the euro, economic prosperity, or even peace. Yet, to the disappointment of the European Commission, which is concerned about economic growth and labor flexibility, European citizens have been rather slow in utilizing this right.

Within the EU-15, levels of intra-European mobility have stayed relatively stable. The majority of foreign workers have continued to come from outside the European Union, and the share of mobile EU nationals has remained lower than it had been during the days of the guest-worker era of the 1960s.

In 2000, about 5.1 percent of the total EU-15 population, or 19 million people, lived in a country of which they were not a citizen. The majority of these foreign citizens lived in Germany (37.0 percent), France (18.4 percent), and the United Kingdom (10.2 percent). Only about 6 million of the foreign citizens (1.6 percent) living in the European Union in 2000 were nationals of another EU Member State, and the majority of them also lived in Germany (1.9 million), France (1.2 million), and the United Kingdom (860,000).

According to EUROSTAT, the statistical office of the European Union, 31.9 million foreign citizens lived in the EU-27 in 2009, comprising 6.4 percent of the total EU-27 population. About one-third, or 11.9 million, were citizens of another EU-27 Member State.

The effects of the eastward enlargements of 2004 and 2007 are visible, not only in the overall figures for 2009, but also when it is considered that the two largest national groups in the EU mobile population were those of Romania (2.0 million EU migrants) and Poland (1.5 million EU migrants). Together, these two groups accounted for 11 percent of all foreign citizens living in the EU-27 in 2009. Turkey, a candidate for future EU membership, had the largest share of migrants living within the EU-27 when compared with all non-EU and EU countries (2.4 million).

The proportion of foreign citizens living in each country varied from less than 1 percent in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria to 44 percent in Luxembourg. In terms of numbers, Germany, again, hosted the largest share of foreign nationals in the EU-27 (2.5 million) followed by Spain (2.3 million), the United Kingdom (1.6 million), France (1.3 million), and Italy (1.1 million).

Characteristics of Intra-European Migrants in the EU-15

The most extensive effort undertaken so far to understand intra-EU migration was the Pioneers of European Integration (PIONEUR) research project, which took place between 2003 and 2006.

The project targeted movers between the five most populous EU-15 Member States — Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain — and used the European Internal Movers Social Survey (EIMSS) in 2004 to collect information on the experiences of nearly 5,000 Europeans who had moved from one of these countries to another. Because intra-European migrants are not easily traced from population registers, the survey used an objective name-based telephone directory sampling technique to reach this population.

The survey revealed four general migrant types in the EU-15: late-traditional migrants who continue the old south-north labor migration patterns, retirement migrants who move from north to south, middle-aged preretirement migrants, and a class of highly mobile young European professionals.

For the Europeans of the EIMSS survey, economic considerations or differences in wage levels were not as prominent of motives for moving as traditional economic theories of migration might suggest. In fact, the most common reasons stated for mobility were related to love and family: "to live with partner/spouse/children" got the absolute highest share of responses at 29.7 percent. The second-most important reasons were related to lifestyle and the environment: "to live in a better natural environment" garnered 15.7 percent of responses, followed by "to live in better/healthier weather, enjoy climate" with 13.5 percent. Among the economic or work-related motivations for moving, "to accept a job offer" got the highest share of responses at 15.2 percent.

The PIONEUR project revealed that European migration, at least between the EU-15, has changed over the years from mainly involving less skilled economic migrants in blue-collar occupations towards the mobility of the educated and highly skilled, who often come from upper- or upper-middle-class families.

Looking Forward

When the free movement regime was initiated 60 years ago, it was intended to encourage blue-collar workers to cross borders for temporary employment in the industrial sector. Now, a wide variety of Europeans utilize this right.

In 2009, Eurobarometer surveyed 27,000 individuals from the EU-27 on their mobility experiences and intentions. The report, released in 2010, indicates that EU citizens from the more recently incorporated Member States are more likely to be motivated to work abroad and choose their country of destination based on economic considerations, while those from the EU-15 are more likely to consider lifestyle and cultural factors in their decisions to migrate. These findings reinforce the EIMSS survey findings from about five years earlier.

It seems that, at least for now, two diverging mobility patterns coexist in the current European context, and that these two groups are frequently viewed in somewhat different terms based on the reasons for their migration: more affluent EU-15 migrants are often described as "mobile Europeans," while those coming from the new Member States are referred to as "immigrants," and may face discrimination regardless of their EU-citizenship status.

Member State governments, for example, struggle with finding ways to manage public frustration related to the Roma population in a way that is compatible with EU legislation and universal human rights.

Thousands of Roma, pushed from Romania, Bulgaria, and other countries of Eastern Europe by poverty and discrimination, live in illegal camps at the outskirts of large Western and Northern European cities. In the summer of 2010, France caused an international outcry by dismantling numerous Roma settlements and expelling those who occupied them, despite the fact these individuals were EU citizens with the protected right of free mobility.

But Europeans are not the only population that utilizes the right to free movement within Europe. Once within the borders of the European Union and the Schengen area, third-country nationals also benefit from free mobility in practice — regardless of whether they have permission to legally reside or work in other countries — because of the lack of internal border checks. The implications of this reality, together with the contemporary challenges facing Europe's external borders, have placed significant stress on free movement.

Greece's recent border security travails and the concern on the part of some Member States that Bulgaria and Romania will become porous entry points into the European Union once they join the Schengen area are ready examples of such challenges. In addition, the recent uprisings in North Africa and the subsequent arrival of migrants from conflict-embroiled countries to Italy and Malta have fueled the debate surrounding free mobility, and have led some governments to question the fairness of a system that allows countries situated at the external boundaries of Europe to bear the brunt of border-control responsibilities.

Free mobility and the Schengen system are not static concepts, and the relationships upon which they are predicated will continue to evolve. While not likely to impinge on the overarching principle and practice of freedom of movement within Europe, it is possible that contemporary developments will continue to test solidarity and trust between Member States.


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