1989 Generation Initiative

This article is part of a series of papers based on the preliminary results of the 1989 Generation Initiative’s policy cycle “Tackling Populism: Hope over Fear”. The following article is based on the results of the Roundtable “Labour Mobility” at its launching conference. Written by Martin Garigue, Content Officer.

Workers (of Europe) Unite! With labour mobility threatened, there’s everything to lose but your chains

The idea of being comfortable living and working outside one’s own country seems to trouble some people lately, even beyond the so-called “populist” parties; witness, Theresa May’s recent tirade against “citizens of nowhere”. The spectre of nationalism is once again haunting Europe, and this spectre has increasingly been questioning the free of movement of labour within the Union. At present, the risk, among others, that Schengen Area will permanently be broken up, has become very real.

Mobility of labour, but not all labour

From an economic perspective, labour mobility is understood to be efficient. By permitting labour to freely move between regions, it is believed that workers will go to find jobs wherever they are, providing an automatic stabiliser against economic downturn. Within the EU, labour mobility is further linked to the European ideal of free of movement of people across former national borders, which has also motivated European policy-makers to push for further integration in this field.

“Lately, the financial crisis and its fallout have accentuated political rejection of labour mobility, often channelled through populist parties. While migration has a positive economic impact on aggregate, significant parts of the population suffer real and/or perceived losses.”

There are, however, obstacles abound. Gaps in transnational recognition of university diplomas remain important, as do professional qualifications. Transnational workers contend with unharmonised welfare systems across borders, bureaucratic obstacles to integrating in other states and even variations in the laws of their markets, most problematically diverging liquidity of housing markets. Last but not least, language and culture can be the most significant barrier, particularly to those who, following May, are not ‘citizens of nowhere’. The EU has made it a priority to reduce those barriers: directives streamlining professional qualifications, the Bologna process for diploma recognition across Europe, and Erasmus+ to foster transnational student-networks are all parts of its response.

Lately, the financial crisis and its fallout have accentuated political rejection of labour mobility, often channelled through populist parties. While migration has a positive economic impact on aggregate, significant parts of the population suffer real and/or perceived losses. Low-skilled service workers from more developed European countries feel particularly threatened by the opening of borders. The Posted Workers Directive, allowing workers to temporarily work across borders following the rules of their home country, has for instance pitted Western European workers in direct competition with cheaper Eastern European workers on their own territory. Given their own costs, Western European low-skilled workers do not, in turn, often find work in Eastern European countries, a situation accentuated by lower educational achievement and, from there, less ability to adapt to life in other states, e.g. learning new languages.

Theoretically, labour mobility works for all, hence, given that not all take advantage of it, it has been working without, or even against, some: the growth or reduction in size of the second group holds a key to the future of populist appeal in Europe.

Creating the conditions to a real right to freedom of movement

Long-term labour mobility can only be improved across the board through transnational harmonisation: of bureaucratic procedures, welfare systems, and qualification recognition will all be needed. If labour mobility is to be disconnected from populism however, inequality between those benefiting and those losing out will need to be reduced through targeted policies. To this end, distributional policies aiming at reducing inequalities do respond to the economic pressures felt by those parts of the population on the wrong end of labour mobility; expansion of the European Social Fund and Regional Development Fund, to foster investment in poorer areas, is part of such a policy. Putting all workers on an equal footing to compete with each other should also be sought long-term, for instance with efforts towards developing a European Minimum Wage.

More essential, however, is to work towards promoting access to labour mobility for those who have been left behind up to now. For those already in the job market, this will happen through encouragement of life-long training. Focusing on those who will enter the job market in the future, however, is also quintessential. To achieve this, the EU must, first, extend its remit to vocational training; apprenticeship schemes, an alternative to traditional academic education, should be supported, through loans and equal recognition of schemes across Europe through something akin to the Bologna process.

“Theoretically is not enough: a right, to really exist, must be freely exercisable, and it is up to the European Union to make sure such is the case.”

The EU’s Erasmus+ programme has, up to now, provided a solid response to the need for language training students will need if they want to exercise their freedom of movement. However, the scheme is still reserved to university students only, who are among the most likely to exercise labour mobility later while also being among the most likely to feel European. Despite widening access, important socio-economic barriers to the programme remain, with the poorest segments of the population barred from it. To counter this, the Erasmus programme should be extended to secondary education: the linguistic and cultural exchange at this level, beyond forming European identities, will also extend the opportunity for language training at a period in learning when students have not begun to specialise based on their skills and interests. Much like the current Erasmus scheme, implementation should be left to secondary schools arranging agreements between each other, with support from the Union in the form of Erasmus grants for poorer students.

Promoting access to labour mobility to all is not ground-breaking; against fears on which populism feeds, inclusiveness with regards to those left behind is the only answer. The challenge here, however, is making it all the more important that labour mobility is at the core of the European Project and, thus, European citizenship. The guaranteed free of movement of workers was enshrined in the Treaty of Rome; theoretically, every European worker benefits from it. But theoretically is not enough: a right, to really exist, must be freely exercisable, and it is up to the European Union to make sure such is the case.

Photo by Mihai Simionica

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