Rhein on Energy and Climate

Among the four basic freedoms the EU offers its citizens free movement of labour has traditionally lagged behind, due to cultural and linguistic obstacles and, above all a natural of human longing to stay close to their home.

The economic crisis with its unprecedented high unemployment rates, especially among young people, and high income differentials between well-to-do and poor member countries has given a new push to intra-European migration.

Migration is particularly popular among people with relatively low educational levels on the one hand, who migrate mostly for seasonal jobs in agriculture and hotel services, and for highly qualified business school and engineering school graduates who apply for well-paid jobs with top international companies like Google, Siemens or Accenture and do not mind to stay for good in another EU country.

Linguistic skills have improved enormously since 1958 when free labour movement was introduced among the original Six. College graduates naturally speak and work in English, French or German; and seasonal workers from Poland to Romania do not find it difficult to acquire basic elements of the language where they work.

Big salary differentials have become a new driving factor: On the average, young European engineers or IT experts can count on starting salaries of 28 000 per year; in Poland and Bulgaria, however, no more than €10 000 and in Switzerland, Denmark or Norway as much as € 60 000.

Though the numbers of migrants continue to be very low compared to total European labour force, except for Switzerland, Luxembourg and even the UK, the overall trend is upward. In the future, we should expect more movements, driven by increasing scarcity of skilled labour in the wealthier countries like Germany and Scandinavia. Hopefully, this will progressively lead to a change of mentalities and better understanding: when migrant “workers” return home after five to ten years they will take with them a huge pack of experience and maybe the wish to open a business of their own. Labour migration might turn thus into powerful catalyst for a “European society.”

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 30/6/2014

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