The Problem with Labour Moblity: Opportunity is not Enough

It is a well known fact that labour mobility is low in the E.U, despite the disparate strength of member countries’ economies. In fact, only 0.2% of EU citizens move to work in another country in any given year. Far lower than the 2% to 2.5% of Americans who change States in any given year.

Most commentators on Europe’s labour mobility looked at the practical barriers for EU citizens who are looking for work abroad: labour market regulation, employment taxes, cultural and language barriers. However, a 2010 study by the European Commission shows that most Europeans do not consider these to be the most significant barriers to moving.

The European Commission 2010 study on labour mobility shows that opportunity and economic hardship is not enough to make people move, nor are language or culture significant obstacles. First off, the recent economic hardship has correlated with a lower incentive for Europeans to move even within their own country. The number of Europeans who would move to a new region or country if they were unemployed fell from 66% to 48% between 2005 and 2009. Perversely, in Greece, the number of respondents who said they would move to a new country or region if they were unemployed fell from 67% to 38% in the same period.

The largest barriers to moving weren’t cultural or language. The top disincentives for moving abroad were leaving home, causing family distress, and leaving friends. Only 19% identified learning a new language as an obstacle to looking for work elsewhere.

Cultural barriers were very low on the list of practical difficulties that Europeans expected to encounter in working abroad. Only 16% of respondents identified cultural barriers as a possible practical impediment to looking for work abroad. And only 10% worried about getting their qualifications certified. Although language barriers were the number one challenge to working in another country, overall, only 10% to 20% of Europeans depending on the country expect that they would actually encounter any barriers to finding work.

Calls for eliminating labour restrictions within Europe would certainly help bring some balance to the European economy across regions, but it won’t be a panacea. Many European citizens are tied to their home countries through family or identity. Until there is a dramatic shift in attitudes toward working abroad (which is at least taking hold in younger, more educated generations), a lack of labour mobility will remain an impediment to the success and sustainability of the Euro.