Free movement in EU between expectation and reality

The concept of free movement of persons in EU was established by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 and represents a central value of Union citizenship. It is based on the idea that every person living on the communitarian territory has an EU citizenship, which allows him/her to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States. This goes along with the free movement of European workers. They can enjoy the right to move and work in another Member State and be treated equally with nationals, in term of employment, remuneration and other conditions of work.

But what do actually EU citizens think about the freedom of movement?

To answer this question the REScEU Mass Survey was carried out on six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and Sweden. Here some interesting results.

First of all it was investigated how freely EU citizens should be allowed to enter the labour market of another member state. On average, almost half (49,2%) of respondents assert the domestic labour market should welcome every legally resident citizen from the Member States; one third (30,5%) gives the priority to natives, and the remaining (20,2%) believe that foreigners can have access to other labour markets as long as they keep a job. More in detail, Polish citizens express the highest preference for EU citizens of other nationalities accessing local labour markets freely and individually (59%), instead the lowest is stated by the French (40%); France registers also the lowest percentage in considering foreigners workers only as guest-workers (14,4%), while the Germany is the highest (27,4%); finally, France demonstrates to be the most conservative since 45,6% vote for giving the priority to the nationals, whereas Germany is the less close with 21,7%.

The second questions regarded who should be able to access social security benefits. Overall, 43,3% of the respondents believe that the social security system should cover all foreigners, 40,5% gives the priority to the EU citizens and 16,2% to the nationals. From these data, we could infer that the majority of EU citizens feel world citizens more than EU citizens, and, above all, there is less closure that people may think.

But this is only one part of the problem.

Literature (Rehm, Hacker, Schlesinger and Svallfors) seems to suggest a relation between preferences on matters of foreign access to national welfare and jobs and occupational class. In fact, if you think that the country of residence is the key factor for individual’s preferences, you are wrong. The expectation that the “free movement versus national closure” difference runs between high and low wages countries accounts for barely 5% in the respondents’ answers. The most relevant result is that “blue-collars” are extremely less afraid of foreign competition on the labour market than the “white-collars”, but they are much keener on restricting welfare access.

This issue was discussed during the last two-day summit in Brussels on 22 & 23 June 2017, in order to understand the concrete consequences of Brexit especially for EU citizens living in UK. Since the beginning, one of the cornerstones of EU was an “open society” to promote peace, equality and respect for human rights, democracy and rule of law. And this shouldn’t be in doubt even after Brexit. But the agreement between the 27 member States and UK seems to be far. Theresa May’s proposal was below expectations. According to her plan, EU citizens who have lived in Britain for more than five years could demand a new “settled status”, which gives them the same rights as a British national about healthcare, education, welfare and pensions. Those who have been there for a shorter period could stay until they cross the threshold of five years for settled status, whereas others who arrive after a cut-off date would be given a “grace period” to regularise their immigration status.

The other EU member states representatives consider it as a first step, but they are not completely satisfied. It is only the beginning…