Social dimension of intra-EU mobility: Impact on public services / Foundation Focus, December 2015
There is a heated debate in many of the host EU Member States about the impact of mobility on public services. The debate centres on the ‘welfare magnet’ hypothesis, which holds that mobile citizens from the central and eastern European Member States are attracted by better-quality services and easier access to those services in the more affluent western Member States.
This, it is argued, puts additional pressure on social services in the host countries. The issue has recently become highly politicised in some Member States, especially as a consequence of the economic and financial crisis and particularly the increased inflow of these mobile EU citizens.
Recent research by Eurofound examines the impact of intra-EU mobility on public services in nine host countries: Austria, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK. The research focuses on citizens from 10 central and eastern European Member States (EU10) – eight that joined the EU in 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) and two in 2007 (Bulgaria and Romania). The main objective of the research was to explore whether there was any evidence supporting the welfare magnet hypothesis.
Focus of the research
East–west mobility still dominates current intra-EU mobility, and the debate on ‘welfare tourism’ is associated mainly with the ‘new migrants’. Therefore, the focus of the study was the impact of the inflow of EU10 citizens on the take-up of benefits and various social services in the nine host countries. Previous research has shown that welfare dependency can be reduced when migrants are successfully integrated. Hence, if benefits and services are increasingly used by these mobile citizens, it is important to look at the main obstacles to their integration in the host countries.
The study further aimed to identify the challenges that mobile EU10 citizens are likely to face when they arrive and stay in a host country. This could have important policy implications at Member State and EU level, but also for regions and local municipalities within the individual Member States.
Take-up of benefits and social services
The research found that, overall, take-up of welfare benefits and services by EU10 citizens in host countries is lower than that of the native population. This is particularly the case in relation to disability and sickness benefits, social housing and pensions. However, take-up of employment-related benefits, most notably unemployment benefits, is higher than that of natives. This is understandable due to the high participation of mobile EU10 citizens in the labour market. Moreover, as a consequence of the crisis, especially in those countries severely hit, EU10 mobile citizens were at higher risk of unemployment than native workers.
Take-up of education opportunities among mobile citizens, especially compulsory education for younger children, is increasing. As a result of this increase, some countries have reported a high concentration of migrants’ children in schools in certain areas.
However, the available data suggest that the EU10 citizens tend to use health services less than the native population in host countries, mainly because the majority of them are young people. Similarly, EU10 citizens make less use of social housing than natives. Data from Ireland and the UK show that fewer EU10 citizens access social housing even if they have similar socioeconomic characteristics – such as income, family size or employment status – as natives.
The reason for lower access clearly lies in the low stock of social housing, resulting in long waiting times even for natives. This means that EU mobile citizens who have recently arrived in the host country will join the bottom of long waiting lists for housing. Moreover, restrictive eligibility conditions, such as those introduced in some of Spain’s autonomous communities, tie eligibility to being registered with a particular municipality for a number of years, explaining the lower access to social housing among these EU mobile citizens.
As regards future impact on specific services in host countries, demand for housing is likely to increase. This could be linked to the intention of the EU10 mobile citizens to become more settled. For instance, on arrival in a host country and during the following few years, these mobile citizens and especially young people, who do not have families, tend to share an apartment or house. Their position obviously changes later when they start a family and need their own accommodation.
Challenges of welfare systems
In general, access to benefits can be problematic, even for eligible EU10 citizens, because of difficulties in dealing with often complicated social welfare systems, especially due to lack of information and language skills. More recently, many legislative changes have been reported in several countries, also as a consequence of the crisis, adding to the difficulties for mobile citizens in navigating welfare systems.
Ways forward for policymakers
Since the lack of information can often be traced back to insufficient language knowledge, remedying this problem could help to facilitate the social inclusion of EU mobile citizens in host countries. The EU should play a more proactive role, in cooperation with the host Member States, in supporting language learning among mobile citizens.
Eurofound’s research suggests that recent budget cuts in individual Member States have adversely affected language learning opportunities for the most vulnerable groups of EU mobile citizens, such as those on low incomes or in precarious jobs. Investing in language skills with EU support, therefore, seems to be the right way of achieving the Commission’s aim, stated in its 2013 Communication on free movement, of ‘countering public perceptions that are not based on facts or economic realities’.
Within the context of demographic change in Europe, the consequences of intra-EU mobility are of high importance. While increased mobility could contribute to mitigating the consequences of population ageing and an ageing workforce in the host countries, it could exacerbate the effects of the same phenomenon in the sending countries, even if remittances and accumulated pension entitlements could help in the future.