Labor Mobility in the EU Addressing Challenges and Ensuring ‘Fair Mobility’

Written by | Friday, August 26th, 2016

Mikkel Barslund and Matthias Busse (Centre for European Policy Studies)

Mobility enshrined in the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital is one of the basic pillars of the European integration. The mobility of people is one of the most practical and beneficial rights that the EU provides to citizens within Member States. Mobility increases employment across the EU and strengthens its competitiveness, for it leads to an efficient allocation of labor to the sectors and regions where it is most needed, thus contributing to the growth of firms and an increase of investment. Therefore, the EU sees mobility as one of the key tools to achieve its long-term goals of economic performance and that is also why it tried to deepen mobility in response to the financial crisis.

However, despite these efforts, the level of mobility within the Union is relatively low. In the EU, about 20 million people live in a different Member State than their own country of birth, which is approximately equivalent to only three percent of the EU‘s population. Every year, about 2 million people move between Member States, which is about one tenth of all mobile citizens. For example, in the US, which is often used as a benchmark, the relative numbers measuring the mobility are approximately ten times higher.

There are several reasons for the existence of a relatively low mobility in Europe. The language barrier is undoubtedly one of the main reasons but it will take years, if not decades, to overcome this obstacle. Other examples include different institutions in the labor market, different rights of workers or the difficulty of looking for jobs in other Member States. It is possible to strengthen the EU’s mobility and thus competitiveness by a continuous reduction of these barriers but every such effort will inevitably impinge on the so-called ‘social trilemma’.

According to the social trilemma model, it is not possible to have a fully integrated labor market, national social security systems and a high level of social protection at the same time. This problem is mainly caused by different levels of economic development in individual countries since social benefits in one country may be higher than the average salary in another country. The Union must balance these objectives in order to find a reasonable compromise that will deepen integration but at the same time maintain the welfare state, which will create a form of mobility widely perceived as fair.


(The study can be downloaded here:

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