Freedom of movement should be a reality for ALL European citizens!- by MEP Cristian Dan PREDA, for EP Today

Since the 1st of January 2014, citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are now able fully to enjoy the right to freedom of movement within the European Union. On this day, some 7 years after the two countries joined the EU, temporary restrictions on Romanians’ and Bulgarians’ access to the EU labour market were finally lifted. However, what was to be for the people of my country a moment to rejoice, as it marked the country’s full integration into the European family, became a matter of controversy elsewhere in Europe.
Ironically, Romanians prepared to enjoy freedom of movement within the EU amidst repeated calls for its limitation emanating from other EU member states. In an article published in the Financial Times last November, Prime Minister David Cameron argued that “free movement within Europe needs to be less free” and defended more restrictive policies towards EU citizens in the UK.
Earlier last year, in April, a joint letter to the Irish Presidency from the governments of four EU member states (Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) likewise called for a restrictive approach to freedom of movement, pointing out that “immigrants from other Member States” place national social security systems under considerable strain.
They denounced the burden caused by the “immigration of European citizens” and called for a tough stance towards abuses and the “fraudulent use of the freedom of movement”. It is not only in the UK that the subject has provoked controversy.
Albeit in varying degrees, intra-European mobility is a hot topic in most of the EU15 countries, which are grappling with unemployment and the consequences of economic crisis. The controversy may well play into the hands of populist and Eurosceptic parties and boost their chances in the upcoming European elections. For this very reason, the concerns expressed in the UK and elsewhere in Europe should certainly not be taken lightly. But some clarity is needed in this debate and we have carefully to separate myths and facts.
Instead of giving in to the populist temptation, we should uphold EU law, which already contains sufficient guarantees to prevent abuses. Freedom of movement is an essential element of European citizenship and it should not be made the collateral victim of short-term calculations of electoral gain.
“Defogging” the debate
To be sure, concerns about immigration have also played a prominent role in previous European elections. But this time around the debate focuses not on illegal immigration from outside the EU, but on freedom of movement within the EU.
Moreover, what is striking in the current debate is the tendency to blur the distinction between the two. The joint letter of four EU governments mentioned above addresses the issue as if EU workers and citizens were covered by the set of rules applicable to third country nationals coming to the EU. By conflating the two notions, the whole concept of European citizenship risks being undermined.
It should be recalled that the mobility of workers has historically been a central part of the process of EU integration and at the very heart of its economic dynamics. Indeed, European economic integration has always meant promoting cross-border mobility through the four freedoms of the internal market (capital, goods, services, and persons). With the introduction of the concept of European citizenship in 1993, the idea of mobility took on a whole new dimension, namely a political one. Not only workers, but all EU citizens are now free to move and reside on the territory of the member states, and EU secondary legislation has subsequently refined the contours of this right.
Concerning the specific case of the freedom of movement of Romanians, one needs to stress that several unrelated issues were jumbled together in the public outcry that preceded January 1,2014. The question of the mobility of Roma people, including from Romania, and their integration in the societies of other EU Member States had already been sparking debate in Europe for some time. Then, with the heated discussions surrounding the revision of the Posted Workers Directive, the Romanian construction worker came to replace the Polish plumber as a threatening image for the public in countries such as France. The prospect of lifting the restrictions on labour market access for Romanians and Bulgarians might have galvanized these debates, but this does not mean that we should ignore the facts.
Intra-EU mobility: separating myths and facts
The fact remains that the mass influx of Romanians anxiously awaited by the British media and British politicians come January 1st did not materialize. This is hardly surprising, since most of the Romanians that wanted to leave the country already did so after Romania joined the EU and even before that. According to a study carried out on behalf of the European Commission (EC) and released already in 2011, the scale of Romanian migration to other EU countries had been increasing since 2004, with an acceleration occurring a good three years before Romania joined the EU.
According to Eurostat figures, there are 2,4 million Romanian citizens living within the EU-27. However, it is not the UK, but rather Italy and Spain that are the primary destinations for the overwhelming majority of Romanians that have decided to leave their country. It should also be noted that despite this fact, Spain and Italy removed the restrictions on access to the labour market well before the end of the transition period (in 2009 and 2012 respectively).
If, on the other hand, we look at the bigger picture of intra-EU mobility, it appears to be a rather small scale phenomenon. According to the figures provided by the EC, two decades after the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty, which introduced the notion of EU citizenship, there are only 14,1 million EU citizens (2.8%) residing in another Member State. Moreover, EU citizens wanting to make use of the right of free movement should not be ab initio regarded as potential abusers of this right and as an economic burden. In fact, all evidence points rather to the net economic benefit that intra-EU migrants represent for their host countries. The GDP of the EU15 is estimated to have increased by almost 1% in the long term as a result of free movement after the 2004 enlargement. On average, EU migrants are more likely to be employed than nationals living in the same country. The employment rate of mobile EU citizens is thus 67,7% as compared to 64,6% among nationals. As employed workers, they contribute to bearing the costs of public services in the host country. As only a small share of mobile EU citizens are not in employment (students, retired persons, jobseekers and family members), they are unlikely themselves to become a burden on the welfare systems of the host Member States.
Turning now to the specific case of the Romanian citizens, a study conducted by the German Federal Statistics Office (Destatis), whose findings have been presented at the beginning of January 2014, concluded that Romanian migrants in Germany have higher education levels than the average German population. Some of them are even over-qualified and find work in areas where Germany is in need of skilled personnel (IT specialists, engineers, doctors, etc.). This contradicts the popular perception that Romanians migrating to other EU Member States would accept predominantly unqualified work that nobody else wants.
Furthermore, the current situation of labour in Europe should not be presented as a zero sum game, i.e. per the motto “EU citizens from other Member States are coming to take our jobs!” The matter is more complex, since, even in a context of economic crisis, there are in Europe around 2 million job vacancies that remain unfilled. Finally, according to the EC, the evidence suggests that the scale of abuses of the right to freedom of movement is likely to be small.
Upholding EU law and reinforcing the freedom of movement of EU citizens
The existing EU legal framework provides for sufficient safeguards to ensure that EU citizens that make use of their right to free movement do not become an excessive burden on the host Member states. Directive 2004/38/EC thus allows any Member State to deny social assistance to economically non-active EU citizens during the first three months of residence. During the first 5 years of residence in another Member State, national authorities may asses whether an EU citizen has become an unreasonable burden on the social security system, and in that case they can refuse residence and cancel the social entitlements he or she might enjoy. In order to claim equal treatment with the nationals of the host Member States concerning social security rights, EU law requires economically non-active citizens to demonstrate that this state has become their “habitual place of residence”.
The current controversy regarding free movement ultimately boils down to a question of correct application of EU law. The EC responded to the concerns of potential abuse by adopting a five points action plan in order to assist Member States in preventing abuse and implementing EU legislation.In any case, the allegations of abuse should not be a reason to underminefreedom of movement. On the contrary, European citizens expect us tocontribute to making it a reality for all. Rather than devising new ways to restrictthe freedom of movement of EU citizens, we should focus on making it work for their benefit and for the benefit of growth and employment in Europe. This includes, hopefully only for the time being, fighting erroneous publicperceptions that are not grounded in facts.

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