Labour Mobility in the EU: a Tale of Two Streams Google images - Labeled for reuse

In this guest article, Mikkel Barslund (@mBarslund) and Matthias Busse (@matthias_busse) from the Brussels based think-tank the Centre for European Policy Studies, provide a pertinent analysis of some of the trends in labour mobility and what they mean for the future of the EU.

The free movement of persons is one of the most cherished achievements of the European Union, encompassing not only EU tourists moving across member state borders without checks but more importantly labour mobility. The right to seek employment in another EU country without discrimination opens new jobs opportunities for individuals and enables efficient reallocation of labour to where it is needed most – at least in theory.  

The flow is but a trickle

In reality only 3.4% of the EU population are currently making use of this popular right, by living and working in a member state other than where they were born. If we count the number of people living in another member state based on their citizenship, the number decreases to 2.7%. In the United States, the corresponding figure stands at around 30% of population. Naturally the EU cannot achieve labour mobility rates at a similar level of the US primarily due to language barriers. Speaking the national language at intermediate level is often indispensable for many vacancies . Cultural differences and bureaucratic barriers such as the recognition of qualifications and access to the necessary information are additional obstacles to relocating. The EU and several national governments have made substantial progress over the past decade, for example through the job-matching portal EURES, which pools national vacancies and enables jobseekers to create an online profile.

Thus, barriers to labour mobility have been lowered and the economic crisis over the past years has provided a strong incentive to seek employment abroad. The unemployment rates in Spain and Greece have risen above 25% while the rates in Germany and the United Kingdom have remained consistent or even decreased to around 5-6%. As harmful as the crisis has otherwise been, it did create – at least on paper – the ideal context for a surge in labour mobility across the EU. One could say the key question related to labour mobility is ‘when - if not now?’.

And indeed optimists are pointing out that the rate of EU mobility has risen since 2006 from 2.0% to 2.7% in 2013. This remarkable growth rate unfortunately is misleading. The change was for the most part brought forth by the accession of the new member states in Central and Eastern Europe.

The two streams

Labour mobility within the old member states has increased slightly over time but not to the extent anticipated given the current economic climate. The East-West stream is still much more voluminous than the South-North stream, even more so when accounting for differences in population.

The chart below depicts emigration as a percentage of domestic population for the GIPS (Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) and the EU10 (Bulgaria, Estonia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia), in 2013. The total outflow in the GIPS narrowly exceeds the outflow of the EU10, but the truth is that two-thirds of this emigration stems from non-nationals who are either returning home or moving on to another EU member state. Conversely, the EU10 emigration is primarily driven by nationals leaving the country. In short, nationals of the new member states are more than twice as mobile as the Southern peripheral countries. These figures include emigration to non-EU countries, and so the actual intra-EU mobility figure is somewhat lower.

Figure 1: Emigration as percentage of domestic population, 2013 (Source: Eurostat)
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It has to be noted that the small states of Greece and Portugal have indeed witnessed a relatively strong outflow and growth in mobility; however, their impact on the overall GIPS aggregate is small, so that the meagre mobility reaction of Italians and Spaniards overshadows them. The chart above displays the migration flows with regard to citizenship. It is impossible to distinguish between emigration out of the EU and mobility within the EU. However, due to cultural ties between the GIPS and former colonies we could assume that excluding emigration to third countries would make the difference even starker.

What can be said is that for the GIPS, emigration plays a larger role relative to intra-EU mobility, than for the EU10. The chart below shows that looking solely at intra-EU mobility, the outward mobility from the GIPS is far lower than that of the EU10. The inward mobility of the EU10 also exceeds the GIPS’s.

Figure 2: Mobility flows as percentage of domestic population, 2013  (Source: Eurostat)
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Combining both charts unveils that South-North mobility is still nowhere near the East-West mobility despite the strong incentives during the last years.

Delving into more detail, there is great variation across the EU in outward mobility – by which we mean EU citizens moving from one state to another EU member state - in percentage of the domestic population (see map below). The map is colour coded to show outward mobility in percentage of domestic population and one can clearly see that in 2013, in most Eastern European member states more than 2.5 persons per 1000 left their respective country for another EU member state. This also applies to Spain, Portugal and particularly Greece, however a substantial part of their 'mobility’ stems from non-nationals moving out of the country – many of whom are from other EU countries.

The below map gives a picture of this phenomenon. It shows each country’s share of national citizens out of all EU citizens emigrating from the reporting country (including EU nationals moving to the US, for example). In Spain only a rough third (31%) of EU citizens leaving the country in 2013 were actually Spaniards. Which, by conversion, also means that more than two thirds are EU citizens of other nationalities.

Figure 3: Share of nationals in emigration of EU citizens per country (percentage) 

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Note: The colour of the countries shows the outward mobility in percentage of domestic population 

The combination of low or medium mobility rates plus high ‘non-national’ share in emigration indicates that EU10 nationals remain, by far, more mobile that those from Southern nationals.

At least the growth rates of South-North mobility appear encouraging, given that they suggest higher potential in the future, as various new networks are created.  In the medium term people’s awareness of opportunities arising from mobility may have an effect on the educational system and mind-sets generally. It can be argued that in the future, students faced with the opportunity to go abroad would choose educational paths that are more likely to enable them to pursue this route. 

Ultimately, flows have responded to the crisis in the sense that already-mobile citizens (those who already live in another member state), seem to have moved to another member state with low unemployment; a prominent example is Italy, where the inflow of EU citizens remains high (particularly from Romania). This may not come as a surprise, given that recently hired foreign workers tend to be the first to be let go when sales decrease. This circular mobility shifts labour to where it is needed the most and ensures that unemployment rates are not even graver in the Southern periphery. 

Raising the potential

In conclusion, it is not justified to speak of a massive South-North movement. European labour mobility is still mainly driven by the East-West stream and, what is more, some of the South-North stream is actually (to some extent) diverted East-West mobility. Mobilizing the previously immobile citizens is a gradual process which should by no means be forced. Nevertheless, further lowering practical barriers and reshaping educational systems to better enable the future workforce to move abroad remain of key importance. This is particularly relevant for those countries with the least mobile citizens.

Fostering language proficiency, as accomplished through the “mother tongue + two foreign languages” objective, and establishing information events on opportunities abroad and how best to prepare for them can play a crucial part in facilitating (South-North) mobility. Language is the biggest barrier to mobility and learning a new language should not be a chore but seen by pupils as an opportunity.

Ultimately the crisis has shown that labour mobility is in itself difficult to change and that we should not expect a sharp rise in the near future. More than ever it remains crucial to take the right steps now in order to boost mobility in the long-term.