Global Insights: EU free movement of people under threat: Is the mobility growth engine stuttering?

EU free movement of people under threat: Is the mobility growth engine stuttering? by Klaus F. Zimmermann

Migration is one of the growth factors behind successful economies. Immigration helps to moderate the decline of shrinking populations. Fluctuating and flexible workers ensure an optimal supply of goods and services through adapting to economic needs.1 Free movement of persons is a fundamental right that provides European Union (EU) citizens the option to move and work freely within the EU. The concept of an open labor market forms an integral part of the European economic model and is one of EU’s major achievements. For decades, the four fundamental freedoms of the internal market have brought development, prosperity and social security to European economies. It is these fundamental freedoms and not the commitment to the principles of democracy and human rights that make Europe attractive in the world.

Given the increasing crises and conflicts in Eurasia and Africa, the population explosion in Africa with its enormous labor potential and the increasing need for skilled workers in Europe due to population decline, the question arises as to whether the freedom of movement of people in the EU is at stake. Illegal and legal immigration reinforces the trend of alienation of European populations from Europe and leads to political radicalization, especially on the right side of the political spectrum. The challenge is to stem the flow of illegal immigration while simultaneously attracting the skilled workers needed in Europe. Questions arise as to whether legal restrictions and asylum restrictions are effective means of overcoming these challenges, and whether abandoning or restricting the free movement of people can be considered as viable measures to maintain social balance in European societies.

The pre-Christmas European asylum compromise is considered by many as historically significant. The various elements of this compromise have long been intensely debated at the political level and were also considered inevitable in academia.2 One of the main provisions stipulates that asylum seekers must register and undergo biometric recording at the EU’s external borders. In reception centers (“strictly controlled reception facilities” for applicants from “safe countries of origin”), their applications should be promptly assessed, and repatriations to countries without threat should be initiated swiftly. Countries not located at the borders agree to either take in a quota of asylum seekers or provide compensation payments. This compromise requires a European standardization of national procedures and focuses on combating human traffickers as well as addressing the root causes of migration in the countries of origin.

An organized, humane, and prompt examination of asylum applications at the European external borders, that is, on European soil with a uniform and fair procedure, would undoubtedly be a step forward compared to the current practice. The current practice involves either informally passing migrants from EU border countries to other EU countries with lengthy procedures and potential later deportations. Alternatively, the resolution of the problem is achieved through compensation payments to transit states such as, for example, Turkey or Libya, without consideration for humanitarian criteria or asylum principles. Under an assessment according to the new European asylum compromise in a European first-entry country and successful recognition, asylum seekers could then freely choose which EU host country they want to go to, or they could even be placed in host countries based on social and economic criteria.

The implementation of the regulations of the asylum compromise in practice will be crucial. It is undeniable that the European border countries need material and ideal support for their services. The agreement, politically marketed as a “tightening,” may bring short-term political relief as long as belief in access restrictions persists, especially in the critical election year of 2024, including for the European Parliament. However, in practice, the political pressure on established political parties due to the issue of illegal immigration will not diminish so easily. The potential for illegal immigration from the poverty- and crisis-stricken regions of the world, especially from Africa, remains significant and is expected to increase substantially in the future. Experience shows that institutional restrictions and government limitations often lead to more illegality among immigrants. The issue of illegal immigration will therefore continue to concern the EU in the future. And deportations remain difficult; they often fail because of the unresolved question of where the people originally came from.

If efficiently implemented, the asylum compromise could lead to accelerated recognition and more targeted distribution of asylum seekers. In particular, targeted profiling could contribute to improved integration into the labor market and society. At the same time, the challenge posed by illegal labor migrants persists, and their influx and presence are likely to increase. Thus, the overall potential for mobility through EU external immigrants remains high or may even rise. However, it is also less likely that these developments will significantly alleviate the structural shortage of skilled workers in parts of Europe in the long term.

The shortage of skilled workers, especially in countries like Germany, is structurally driven and results from a demographic process of aging and population decline. This phenomenon has been foreseeable for decades, but policymakers have neglected to implement timely adjustment measures, such as a significant increase in the retirement age. The population decline inevitably leads to a reduction in the domestic labor potential, while increasing aging restricts labor mobility and migration. However, the mobility of European populations will be crucial to successfully address these challenges.

To address the shortage of skilled workers and mobility deficits, a labor market-oriented immigration policy could make a contribution. In Germany, the federal government plans to expedite the naturalization process for migrants, allowing them to become citizens after just five years of residence in the country, or even after three years if they can demonstrate proficiency in the language, successful academic or professional achievements, or engagement in volunteer activities. Dual citizenship is set to become possible, and for the recruitment of older workers under state agreements, written German exams and naturalization tests may be waived. These measures aim to make Germany more attractive to skilled professionals, although it is not yet clear why this is expected to succeed. However, this is the subject of ongoing parliamentary debates that are likely to extend well into the year 2024.

It should be emphasized that abandoning the free movement of people entails significant economic costs in the form of welfare losses in Europe. This not only leads to a reduction in goods and services but also results in lower government and social compensation. Furthermore, fewer resources are available to respond adequately to the current challenges amid the “Zeitenwende.” This includes financing higher defense expenditures, implementing better security systems to combat terrorism, and supporting Ukraine in defending Western security and societal values. The origin countries of these challenges are notably in the regions of the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and Asia.

Security is another category against which the free movement of people must assert its value. Organizing a secure free movement of people in the future is certainly achievable but likely requires significant additional resources. The dilemma lies in the fact that freedom of movement, through external immigration to the EU and high internal labor mobility, substantially contributes to generating the financial means necessary to address these challenges. The feasibility of this is not a question of economic knowledge but a political design task. If we fail to convince the general public and society of the benefits of continued high levels of immigration and flexible labor mobility, the challenges to democracy and the potential to deliver economic performance in Europe could become worrisome.


1 Klaus F. Zimmermann: Migration, Jobs and Integration in EuropeMigration Policy Practice, Vol. IV, Number 4, October – November 2014, 4 – 16.

2 Holger Hinte, Ulf Rinne and Klaus F. Zimmermann: Flüchtlinge in Deutschland: Herausforderungen und ChancenWirtschaftsdienst, 95 (2015), 744-751.

Ulf Rinne and Klaus F. Zimmermann: Zutritt zur Festung Europa? Neue Anforderungen an eine moderne Asyl- und FlüchtlingspolitikWirtschaftsdienst, 95 (2015), 114-120.

Holger Hinte, Ulf Rinne and Klaus F. Zimmermann: Punkte machen?! Warum Deutschland ein aktives Auswahlsystem für ausländische Fachkräfte braucht und wie ein solches System aussehen kann, Perspektiven der Wirtschaftspolitik, 2016, 17(1): 68-87.

Zimmermann, Klaus F., Refugee and Migrant Labor Market Integration: Europe in Need of a New Policy Agenda in: Bauböck, R. and Tripkovic, M.,  The Integration of Migrants and Refugees.  An EUI Forum on Migration, Citizenship and Demography, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, Florence 2017, pp. 88 – 100.

English version of: Klaus F. Zimmermann, EU-Personenfreizügigkeit in Gefahr. Stottert der Wachstumsmotor Mobilität? Opinion Piece (op-ed) in Wirtschaftliche Freiheit. Das ordnungspolitische Journal, 29 December 2023. Link.


This entry was posted in Global Insights, News, Policy. Bookmark the permalink.