By: Sander Kramer

New data on intra-EU mobility: the beginning of understanding labor mobility in the EU



April 12, the European Commission published its report on intra-EU labor mobility in 2023. This annual report identifies trends in the free movement of workers and their families, based on the latest available data (in this case, 2022/2021). This edition of this valuable source of mobility data also includes an analysis of European citizens’ mobility after their working lives and the volume of exported pensions. This report is a statistical representation of the available data on intra-EU mobility. Thus, the report does not explicitly seek explanations, identifiable reasons for mobility flows, or the changes therein. Let that be precisely where research into understanding migration begins. What encourages mobility in the EU? What hinders mobility? What drives mobile individuals in their choices?


The main finding is that the number of EU citizens – of working age – living in another member state remains stable and amounts to about 9.9 million persons in the 20-64 age group, out of the total number of 13.7 million mobile persons of all ages. Despite a 7% increase in both the number of EU migrants of working age living in the EU and EFTA (European Free Trade Association) countries: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) entering and leaving by 2021, mobility has not yet returned to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.


What stands out in the report is the degree of heterogeneity of mobile EU citizens when it comes to several variables. For example, the majority of mobile EU individuals are young (20-34 years old) and male. The predominance of men was particularly evident in Eastern and Central European destination countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and Lithuania. The Netherlands is one of the countries receiving the largest share of the youngest age group (20-34 year olds). It also shows that the main countries of origin and destination of EU migrants have remained consistent over the years. Romanians still top the list with 25% of all EU migrants, followed by Poles with 12% and Italians with 10%. As for destination, just over 33% of working-age EU migrants live in Germany; Luxembourg stood out with the highest share of EU migrants relative to its total population (41%). The highest employment rates of EU migrants were found in Cyprus, the Netherlands (both 85%), Switzerland (83%) and Germany (81%), while the lowest in 2024 were found in Greece (57%) and Italy (61%). In terms of educational attainment of EU migrants, this appears to be on the rise. In 2022, 32% of EU migrants had a high level of education, up from 29% in 2017. The most common occupations among EU-level movers were elementary occupations (19%), professionals (18%) and white-collar workers and salespeople (16%). The largest employment sector for movers was manufacturing (15%).


Labor goes hand in hand with retirement; working generally leads to pension accrual. The report also shows that the largest exporters of pensions in 2021 were Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, the Netherlands and Austria; together accounting for about 75% of all exported pensions in the EU and EFTA. Several countries are both major destination countries for labor mobility and major exporters of cross-border pensions, such as Germany and France. However, other major destination countries for labor mobility, such as Spain, are not major exporters of cross-border pensions. These trends seem to indicate an inverse relationship between the directions of intra-EU mobility flows and cross-border pensions (e.g., labor mobility sent to one country leads to the export of pensions from the same country).


The staggering amount of data in the report – and this is just a small selection – provides insight into labor mobility in the EU. It helps in understanding labor mobility within the EU. It offers insights into flows, variables, heterogeneity in terms of age/sex/training/occupations, and changes in mobility across borders, but at the same time it raises a lot of questions. What explains the direction and magnitude of these mobility flows, heterogeneity and changes? Why are EU individuals with higher levels of education more mobile? Do they better understand the consequences of working across borders? Are they more receptive to e.g. tax incentives to cross borders? What makes Germany so popular as a destination country? Why does it differ significantly between EU citizens and third country nationals? The composition of its vast economy? The chances of finding a job? The system of residence and work permits? The culture of “Wir schaffen das”? What explains that some countries are both major destination countries for labor mobility and major exporters of cross-border pensions, such as Germany and France? Why are pensioners less mobile? What explains the flow of pensions from Western European countries (i.e. France and Germany) to Southern European destinations (i.e. Spain, Italy and Portugal)? The climate; the more favorable tax rules; health care; the way of life?


Clearly, this valuable source of data regarding labor mobility in the EU, is a first step toward understanding labor mobility in the EU. It offers insight, but it does not yet tell what drives mobility. Cross-border cooperation between countries? The level of information provision? The housing market? Training opportunities? The tax rules? The job opportunities? The culture on the other side of the border? In-depth research into understanding these mobility flows remains indispensable in truly improving intra-EU labor mobility and further building the European single market. We are surrounded by data, but at the same time starving for insight and understanding.


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