What Is “Freedom of Movement” in the European Union?

Freedom of movement allows citizens of the European Union (EU) to move to, live in, and in certain circumstances access the welfare system of the EU country to which they have moved. Freedom of movement is one of the founding principles of the EU. It has been in operation since the creation of the European Economic Community and is primarily designed to support the economies of EU countries by providing a mobile work force.

Who can use freedom of movement?

Originally, the EU gave free movement rights only to people who moved to another member state to seek work there or become self-employed. Once an individual is in employment and satisfies certain conditions, he or she has the same rights as nationals of that country to access benefits such as health care, education, and incapacity benefit. Workers and self-employed EU citizens may also bring their family members, who have access to the same benefits as nationals of the host country.

Free movement rights have been extended to other categories of EU citizens who are not workers or self-employed. However, these citizens have fewer rights because they are not contributing in the same way to the host country’s economy.

Any EU citizen can move to and remain in another EU country for up to three months. EU citizens who are students may remain for the duration of their studies, but must show that they have sufficient financial support for their period of study. Other EU citizens who wish to stay longer than three months must have comprehensive sickness insurance and prove that they have financial resources to support themselves.

Because finding a job from abroad is often difficult, EU citizens who are job seekers can move to another EU country and claim the same out-of-work benefit (but not other benefits) available to nationals of that country while they are looking for employment. This means that the point at which EU job-seekers can access this benefit will depend on each country’s rules for its own citizens. This varies between EU member states.

In some countries job seekers can only claim out-of-work benefits if they have previously worked (e.g., Austria and Belgium); in others a waiting period of several months is imposed (e.g., France and the Netherlands), and in some countries there is immediate entitlement to out-of-work benefits (e.g., the UK, Germany, and Ireland). However, a job seeker must prove that he or she is actively looking for a job and stands a real chance of being given employment.

Why is freedom of movement important in an open society?

The European Union embodies many principles of an open society. The EU’s overarching aim is to “promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.” These values include equality, respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Member states have recognized that they are interdependent and use the EU to cooperate to achieve a greater, collective good.

Freedom of movement is an important part of this cooperation, encouraging tolerance and understanding among people of different cultures. This can help to break down harmful stereotypes and prejudices. It can also help to build solidarity between people and governments of different countries. This will make EU countries more likely to pull together to solve shared problems, such as the Euro crisis.

Why are some governments calling for freedom of movement rules to be changed?

In April 2013, four EU governments called on the EU to change its rules on free movement to make it harder for EU citizens to claim benefits when moving to another member country. These governments argue that higher standards of living and a generous system of state benefits in their countries have attracted large numbers of EU citizens from the newer EU member countries (in particular, the eight Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004).

UK Home Secretary Theresa May has claimed that these citizens are “benefit tourists.” That is, they are not workers or self-employed, and have come merely to access public services and the host state’s benefits system. 

These governments also argue that this problem is likely to become significantly worse once restrictions on free movement for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals are lifted in January 2014. However there is no evidence to back these claims.

What impact will restricted freedom of movement have in the European Union?

The existence of a mobile workforce has allowed workers to relocate to fill job vacancies in different EU countries. The OECD estimates that free movement has lowered the average unemployment rate across Europe by up to six percent.

According to the European Commission, between 2004 and 2009 free movement from newer member countries increased the GDP of the old EU member countries by almost one percent. Restricting free movement rights may slow economic recovery, making austerity last longer and weakening the overall economic power and influence of the EU. This in turn will undermine the EU’s ability to promote open society values in its relations with countries outside Europe.

Research also shows that free movement has not had a negative effect on the employment rates and wages of nationals of the host country. Workers from the newer EU countries generally take lower skilled jobs in sectors such as agriculture, care services, catering, cleaning, and construction. In practice, this puts them in competition for jobs with lower skilled workers from outside the EU, rather than nationals. Restricting free movement could lead to a shortage of workers in certain sectors.

Free movement rights have not only been used by citizens from newer EU member countries. Research shows that free movement is a two-way street. The top five EU countries with nationals living in other EU member states are: Romania (2.3 million), Poland (1.9 million), Italy (1.7 million), Germany (1.5 million), and the UK (1.4 million—with around 800,000 living in Spain alone). Any new restrictions will disadvantage EU citizens from all over Europe.

What activities are the Open Society Foundations carrying out on the issue of freedom of movement?

The Open Society Foundations are:

  • promoting a balanced and well-informed public debate on freedom of movement in the EU through research and advocacy;
  • supporting EU citizens living in another EU country to become active and engaged citizens, including increasing voter turnout in the 2014 European elections.