A better life abroad?

Freedom of movement for all?

Freedom of movement of citizens within and between Member States constitutes one of the core values of the European Union. However, concerns have grown in some countries that are popular destinations for migrant workers from other Member States about the impact of intra-EU mobility on their public services. The ‘welfare magnet hypothesis’ holds that migrants, including mobile citizens from the central and eastern European Member States, are attracted by the better quality and easier access of services in ‘older’ EU Member States. The issue has become highly politicised in some Member States recently, especially as a consequence of the global economic crisis and the greater numbers of people coming from central and eastern European Member States.

Investigating the issue

A newly published report from Eurofound on the social dimension of intra-EU mobility examines if there is any evidence supporting the widely held view that citizens from eastern Europe are coming to western Member States in a form of  ‘welfare tourism’. It looks in particular at the movement of people from 10 central and eastern European Member States (the ‘EU10’)  to nine host countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and the UK). It compares the take-up of benefits and social services by EU citizens of the EU10 with that of the native population. It also looks at which services arrivals to the host countries take up, and why; and it looks at the barriers that make it more difficult for newcomers to integrate in their host countries.

Less take-up of services by EU10 citizens

The key finding of the study is that, overall, citizens from the EU10 have a lower take-up of benefits and social services than native-born residents of host countries. And for certain benefits – disability and sickness benefits, social housing and pensions – it is much lower, due in large measure to their being primarily young people of prime working age. These results back up findings from previous analyses by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), among others, which demonstrate EU10 citizens make a positive fiscal contribution to state budgets in the host countries.

Since employment is the dominant motivation for mobility among EU10 citizens, most of the benefits and services they use are related to the labour market and having a low income. For instance, their take-up of unemployment benefit tends to be greater than that of host-country nationals.

Challenges facing entrants to host countries

Several important challenges for EU10 citizens were identified. In most countries, citizens from the EU10 were at greater risk of becoming unemployed, having salaries cut and facing more precarious working and living conditions. In part, this is because these citizens tend to work in sectors largely staffed by migrants (such as construction, catering, tourism and hospitality, and the retail trade); these sectors are particularly exposed to economic turbulence. And even though migrants from the EU10 are usually well educated, they are most often employed in low-skilled jobs.

In some countries, however, eligibility conditions for non-contributory benefits can mean that more vulnerable entrants are denied benefits, leading to these migrants facing social exclusion and eventual destitution. This is especially the case for older, lower-skilled people.

Looking to the future

The movement of EU citizens has important knock-on effects in terms of demographic change in Europe. From the perspective of host countries with older populations and an older workforce, the entry of young workers could aid in resolving some of the challenges policymakers face in terms of ensuring that the workforce can support citizens in retirement.

However, the same movement could increase the pressure posed by demographic ageing in those countries that young workers are leaving, even if remittances and accumulated pension entitlements might help in the future. 

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