Is less freedom of movement in the EU the solution?
Prime Minister Cameron is spreading the idea that “Free movement within Europe needs to be less free”, as he has argued in a recent article in the Financial Times.
David Cameron argues that large-scale migrations extract talent from countries that need their best people. But is this altruistic motivation really one of defending the new restrictive policies on freedom of movement of EU citizens in the UK? Surely not. Budgetary problems in the welfare system and the increasing unpopularity of newcomers within the indigenous population are grounds adopted as political arguments, not only in the UK, but in other EU countries too. From 1st January 2014 citizens from Bulgaria and Romania will be able to fully exercise their freedom of movement, a factor that is also behind this not so new controversy.
The European Commission’s arguments
The European Commission is, of course, in the opposite ideological camp: Justice Commissioner Reding flagged up figures assuring us that only 2.8% EU citizens (14.1 million) resided in another Member State and that the annual cross-border mobility rate in the EU is only 0.29% (2.4% among states in the USA). Is this small percentage of EU citizens actually a real burden on the social assistance and public health systems of hosting EU countries? Furthermore, is there such a real and large-scale abuse of public benefits as to justify further restrictions on the freedom of movement in the EU? Not in the opinion of the European Commission: in fact, in most Member States mobile EU citizens are net contributors to the host country's welfare system (for example, only 4.2% of social benefits in Germany are received by mobile EU citizens, 1.8% of welfare benefits in the Netherlands, and 2.7% of unemployment benefits in Finland).
What about overburdening of public finances and fraud?
The European Commission takes the view that the existing EU legal framework provides for adequate safeguards to ensure that free movement of citizens does not overburden the States’ budgets. For example, any EU Member State can deny social assistance to non-active EU citizens who move to another Member State during the first three months of residence. Moreover, during the first five years of residence, national authorities can assess whether a citizen has become an unreasonable burden, and therefore refuse residence and cancel the social benefits. Concerning Social Security rights, EU Law requires non-active persons to demonstrate that they have established their habitual place of residence in the host Member State in order to claim equal treatment with nationals.
Alleged existing fraud by some Member States is definitely not a reason to undermine the freedom of movement. Moreover, existing tools and measures to fight against fraud and abuse are already provided in the EU legislation regulating this fundamental right: Directive 2004/38/EC allows Member States to refuse, terminate or withdraw free movement rights in such cases, and entitles them to restrict the freedom of movement of anyone who represents a serious threat to public order and security.
Proposed new actions
To improve freedom of movement, five new actions have been proposed by the European Commission to help and assist Member States in this field: a) Producing a handbook on marriages of convenience; b) Clarifying the concept of "habitual residence" for social security schemes; c) Expanding the European Social Fund for social inclusion; d) Bringing together Managing Authorities from the Member States to exchange best practices; and e) Cooperating with local authorities.
Needless to say, some of these measures are in line with the financial interests of Member States in avoiding fraud and reducing abuse - particularly a) and b) - but the rest of the proposed actions will help to positively reinforce the management of daily life for mobile EU citizens. It is important that no legal or factual obstacles are introduced by EU Member States; but it is no less critical that mobile EU citizens are not excluded from mainstream societies.
Freedom of movement has functioned reasonably well over the years; and even though there are some cases of abuse and fraud, legal mechanisms to prevent and fight against them are foreseen in the EU legislation already in force. This particular freedom has hugely benefitted not only EU citizens, but also both small and large companies and extensively the local economies of EU Member States. Reinforcing freedom of movement is expected by the large majority of EU citizens in nearly all countries in the current challenging situation when the word “crisis” seems to be permanently present in our lives and in political discourse.
José Luis Bazán