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Third-country nationals


The term ‘third country’ is used in the Treaties, where it means a country that is not a member of the Union. This meaning is derived from ‘third country’ in the sense of one not party to an agreement between two other countries. Even more generally, the term is used to denote a country other than two specific countries referred to, e.g. in the context of trade relations. This ambiguity is also compounded by the fact that the term is often incorrectly interpreted to mean ‘third-world country’.

In terms of employment, third-country nationals tend to be disadvantaged, having a labour market participation rate of 62% and an employment rate of 52% in 2001, much lower than the figures for EU nationals, at 69% and 64% respectively (European Commission, Employment in Europe, 2002). Member States vary considerably in the way they conceive the integration of third-country nationals and in the extent to which they have developed and implemented integration policies. Some countries have a long experience in this area whereas others have only just started developing national policies.

On the one hand, the Community provides some protection to third-country nationals; for example, a Council Resolution of 4 March 1996 entitles long-term residents to a residence permit of at least 10 years or an unlimited residence permit. On the other hand, a Council Recommendation of 27 September 1996 on combating the illegal employment of third-country nationals provides for reinforcing cooperation between Member States with regard to immigration policy in respect of third countries.

Working conditions

Article 31 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, headed ‘Fair and just working conditions’ provides that, ‘Every worker has the right to working conditions that respect his or her health, safety and dignity’. This applies to third-country nationals as well as nationals of the EU Member States.

Article 15(3) of the Charter establishes a principle of equal treatment as regards working conditions between non-EU nationals and EU citizens, a principle not evident in the Treaties. Article 15(3) enacts at European level the non-discrimination principle at work on the basis of nationality. The right is to equivalent working conditions; this is different from identical or equal. Moreover, Article 15(3) does not modify the legal position of third-country nationals in terms of access to national labour markets or free movement within the EU.

Directive 2000/43/EC implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin and Directive 2000/78 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation protect all Union citizens and third-country nationals and both cover ‘employment and working conditions, including dismissals and pay’ (Article 3(1)(c) in both directives).

Social security provisions

Council Regulation 859/2003 of 14 May 2003 extended the free movement of workers and social security provisions of Regulation 1408/71 and Regulation 574/72 to nationals of third countries who are not already covered by those provisions solely on the grounds of their nationality. Regulation 859/2003 aimed at granting rights as similar as possible to those enjoyed by Union citizens to third-country nationals legally resident in the Community who satisfy the other conditions provided for in Regulation 1408/71.

This initiative followed on from the request made by the Tampere European Council in October 1999 for the status of third-country nationals to be approximated to that of Member State nationals. In this spirit, the Commission’s Social Policy Agenda 2000-2005 declared, ‘It is important to approximate national legislation on the conditions for admission and residence of third-country nationals, on the basis of a shared assessment of the demographic changes, the situation of the labour market as well as the situation in countries of origin’.

See also: Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union; immigration; posted workers.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
Page last updated: 12 June, 2007