Workers’ mobility and migration: How to achieve a balance in Europe? / Foundation Focus, December 2015

Part of the objective of setting up the EU was to reduce barriers to the free movement of people, goods and services. The aim is to enable exchange between countries, overcome limitations, and balance differences related to specific national systems, such as social welfare systems.

EU regulation

Since its inception in 1957, the EU has established the principle of free movement of European workers across the Member States, as set out in Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This principle entails:

the right to look for a job in another Member State; the right to work in another Member State; the right to reside there for that purpose; the right to remain there; the right to equal treatment in respect of access to employment, working conditions and all other advantages which could help to facilitate the worker’s integration in the host Member State.[1]

Stemming from this principle, a whole body of EU regulation has been built up, stressing the equal treatment at work of European citizens, independently of their country of origin and work. Individual and collective rights are to be equally applied to the nationals of one Member State working in another – for example, in exercising trade union rights (Council Regulation (EEC) No. 312/76).

Implementing this principle remains challenging. It raises many issues, such as: economic and social aspects directly related to non-native workers, the host states and the overall workforce; the transfer of pensions and social benefits; entitlements of EU mobile workers to unemployment benefits and social security; and family issues related to education and housing. This explains why countries seeking EU membership have often had specific provisions introduced in their Accession Treaty, subjecting free movement to certain conditions. Following the EU enlargement on 1 May 2004, when 10 countries joined simultaneously, there were transitional periods that limited the free movement of workers from these Member States (with the exception of Malta and Cyprus) to most, but not all Member States. (Ireland, Sweden and the UK did not impose restrictions). The purpose of this transition period was to smooth the integration of workers from these countries, ensuring full application of the equal treatment principle.

Defining mobility and migration

Mobility and migration are two key features of labour markets, highlighting the need for enhancing skills, matching competencies to labour market demands, developing products and services, and responding to new needs.

At European level, the term ‘geographical mobility’ covers EU citizens moving within and across countries. Under the EU Treaty, all European citizens have the right and freedom to move between EU Member States for work (known as ‘intra-EU mobility’). By contrast, the situation of third-country nationals is determined, according to articles 79 and 80 of the TFEU, by European migration policy. Both EU and national levels of regulation come into play in shaping legal third-country migration:

the EU has the competence to lay down the conditions of entry and residence for third-country nationals entering and residing legally in one Member State for purposes of family reunification. Member States still retain the right to determine admission rates for people coming from third countries to seek work.[2]

This issue of Foundation Focus, which brings together the findings of various Eurofound studies on different aspects of migrants and mobile workers, focuses on geographical mobility. It will therefore mainly consider the labour market situation of EU citizens in terms of intra-EU mobility or internal migration, on the one hand, and migration of third-country nationals to the EU, on the other.

Challenges for Member States

Given the importance of work – both economically and socially – to individuals and to societies, it is vital to acknowledge the position that mobile and migrant workers occupy. Governments, employer organisations and trade unions are all – in principle – open to EU workers freely moving within and between Member States; in practice, however, the integration of (EU and third-country) migrant workers and the implementation of the equal treatment principle still poses a challenge.

The long-standing debate on the posting of workers demonstrates the complexity inherent in favouring the model of a single market and free delivery of services across Europe, on the one hand, while seeking to uphold social protection and employment rights for all workers, on the other.[3] Posted workers are workers who, for a limited period, carry out their work in the territory of a Member State other than the state in which they normally work. They are not considered to be migrants (who are foreign workers seeking long-term employment in a specific country). Lengthy discussions regarding the posting of workers have highlighted the importance of a clear vision regarding the rights of all foreign workers in each Member State, the process of guaranteeing those rights, and the controls and sanctions available for implementing them.

Key issues are at stake here. First, differences in regulation across Europe create possibilities for what is referred to as ‘social dumping’, whereby an employer employs migrant workers, paying them lower wages and applying less strict rules regarding working conditions, in order to cut labour costs and increase competitiveness. Social dumping can jeopardise workers’ rights and conditions, and fair competition. Secondly, workers who are particularly vulnerable – such as migrant workers – can find themselves in a precarious situation: in the face of difficult circumstances, they have less understanding of their rights and are less able to voice their concerns.

The importance of the social partners taking action to combat this phenomenon is recognised at European, national, sectoral and local level. Their collaboration with a range of other social actors and public authorities can provide the framework for striking the correct balance between multiple interests and rights.

Isabella Biletta




European Parliament, ‘Immigration policy’, Fact Sheets on the European Union – 2015.


See the Posting of Workers Directive (96/71/EC) and Directive 2014/67 on the enforcement of Directive 96/71. As outlined in the 2015 Commission work programme, the Commission will carry out a ‘targeted review’ of Directive 96/71 as part of the Labour Mobility Package in order to assess whether any adjustments are needed to further prevent the posting of workers leading to social dumping (see answer given by Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, on behalf of the Commission, to a question by MEP Jutta Steinruck, April 2015 or CWP 2015, Annex I).

Definitions used:
Intra-EU mobility: The movement of EU nationals within the EU, whether within a Member State or between Member States, as mobile workers. In cases where this move is between Member States and at least semi-permanent, this constitutes internal migration. Shorter-term movement includes the phenomena of posted workers and cross-border commuters.

Migration: The movement of workers between states on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. This migration may be internal migration between Member States or third-country migration of workers from outside the EU.



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