Movement of workers within the EU rising slowly, but still low

Montage of migration imagery

The numbers of people moving country within the EU is on the rise again following a sharp drop during the economic crisis. In 2012 , 6.6 million EU citizens were working in an EU country other than their home country, according to the EU Labour Force Survey. The main destination countries are Germany and the United Kingdom.

Outflows of nationals from southern European countries – Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain – have been increasing as a consequence of the economic crisis and rising unemployment rates in their countries of origin. Nonetheless, the biggest share of intra-EU migrant movements is still from eastern European Member States westwards.

Labour shortages persist across the EU despite high unemployment; bottlenecks exist, and have done so for several years, in recruitment to high-skilled occupations in the health professions, ICT, engineering, sales and finance. The European Commission wants to see more dynamism in European labour markets and the use of mobility by countries as a means of tackling imbalances, thereby increasing employment across the EU as whole.

National-level doubts

The Commission, however, is up against rising resistance to immigration among politicians and the public in the Member States experiencing comparatively higher inflows of nationals from other EU countries – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Public debate in these countries expresses fears that immigrants are abusing the welfare system, taking jobs from native workers, and enabling employers to undercut established pay rates.

Evidence from research repeatedly finds that EU migrant workers are more likely to be economically active than nationals and less likely to claim social benefits. The employment rate of EU migrant workers, for instance, is consistently higher than that of nationals – 66% and 64.5% respectively in 2012, according to Eurostat data.

Anxiety about immigration is hardly warranted by its magnitude: migration within the EU is low compared with other major economic blocks, at a level of just 0.3% across the 27 EU Member States in 2010, compared with the USA, for instance, where the figure is 2.4% across the 50 states.


What is keeping mobility low? A Eurobarometer survey found that lack of proficiency in the language of potential destination countries is the major barrier, cited by over half of respondents. The next most common disincentive, cited by 24%, was lack of confidence among respondents that they would be able to find a job. 
Practical difficulties encountered or expected in relation to working abroad (Special Eurobarometer, 337/ Wave 72.5)

Policy responses

Member States are not making major efforts to encourage mobility, even in countries where there are labour market shortages. Policy measures are few; for instance, publicly funded language courses are made available free to EU newcomers upon arrival in just 14 Member States.

Cross-border mobility would also be easier if citizens' qualifications were recognised across the whole Union. The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) was meant to address this problem by providing employers with a means of translating any qualification presented by an EU national by reference to the EQF level, allowing them to compare it with qualifications in their own country. The EQF, however, has not yet been fully implemented.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to promoting greater mobility, as Member States face very different challenges. Eurofound’s recent report Labour mobility in the EU: Recent trends and policies examines the policy measures already adopted by governments and provides some pointers on further directions that policy could take.

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