Improving labour mobility in Europe

George Pufan / Feb 2018

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This year, the EU celebrates the 50th anniversary of the founding regulation on the free movement of workers. It is one of the four fundamental freedoms of the Union, an important individual right for any worker and a vital part of the single market. EU workers from other Member States – and the EFTA countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) - enjoy equal treatment with nationals in their access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages. Any national authority and any employer, public or private, must apply and respect these rights.

The numbers are significant. The latest available figures indicate that, within a total EU working age population of 306 million, around 11 million movers of working age (20-64 years) were living long-term in an EU Member State other than their own. Every year, some 1.1 million people of working age move within the EU and every day a further 1.3 million cross a border to work.

So, how well does the European Commission ensure this freedom and how effective is EU action to promote labour mobility? That was the question in an audit* we carried out in the five Member States with the largest inflows of non-national workers and the largest outflows of workers to other countries: Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom.

In short, we found that more needs to be done. There is scope for the Commission to improve awareness of workers’ rights in this regard and obstacles such as mutual recognition of professional diplomas persist, despite action by both the Commission and the Member States.

The main EU tool to facilitate labour mobility is the EURES (European Network of Employment Services) job mobility portal. But we found that it faces significant challenges, not least because many national public employment services do not use it to publish all their vacancies. Furthermore, an analysis of vacancies posted via the portal revealed that information needed by jobseekers had frequently been omitted. 39 out of 50 had no deadline for applications and 44 did not include a starting date.

A review of 23 EURES cross-border projects found that few had defined results, while weaknesses in monitoring meant that outputs and results could not be aggregated. According to Commission figures, only 3,7% of jobseekers’ contact with EURES lead to a job placement in 2016. Moreover, most of the public employment services surveyed stated that they were unable to quantify actual job placements.

There is a similar lack of relevant data when it comes to funding. Up to €27.5 billion is available to Member States to address labour mobility between 2014 and 2020 under the European Social Fund, managed jointly by the European Commission and the Member States. But the amounts actually used for this purpose are not known. The Commission itself manages the funding of EURES with a funding package of €165 million over the same period.

It would be wrong to paint the picture as all black: for example, the Commission has introduced an electronic card for professionals such as nurses, healthcare professionals, chemists, physiotherapists, ski and mountain guides and estate agents, who can submit the proofs required for recognition to the relevant authority in their own Member State. The Polish authorities have translated the legal rights concerning the free movement of workers and mobility into their own guidance for EU workers coming to Poland and for Polish citizens moving abroad. The information is available in Polish, English, German and French. And the Oberrhein cross-border project is the fruit of a longstanding and successful cooperation between neighbouring public employment services, trade unions and employers associations in France, Germany and Switzerland. Some 93,300 daily commuters cross these borders, the second highest number of trans-frontier workers in the EU.

But if the free movement of workers is to be enjoyed to its fullest extent, the efforts currently being made have to be better targeted. Our audit report recommends that the Commission should work with the Member States on better collection and use of labour market data and also improve the design of EU funding for labour mobility. For their part, the Member States need to address the limitations of the EURES Job mobility portal if it is to become a true European placement tool. A 50th birthday is a milestone for anyone; 2018 provides the opportunity to rejuvenate EU labour mobility policy.


*Special Report No 6/2018 “Free Movement of Workers – the fundamental freedom ensured but better targeting of EU funds would aid worker mobility” is available on the ECA website in 23 EU languages.


George Pufan

George Pufan

February 2018

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