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Achieving the full benefits and potential of free movement of workers

Legal status of the document This summary has been archived and will not be updated, because the summarised document is no longer in force or does not reflect the current situation.

Achieving the full benefits and potential of free movement of workers

The European Commission provides citizens with information on their fundamental rights in the area of free movement. In this way, it hopes to enable them to exercise these rights in practice and to create a European labour market.


Communication from the Commission of 11 December 2002 - Free movement of workers: achieving the full benefits and potential [COM(2002) 694 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


Citizens who exercise their right to free movement of workers * within the European Union, which is a fundamental freedom under Community law, are contributing to the creation of a genuine European labour market.

However, practical, administrative and legal obstacles remain, preventing workers from taking full advantage of the benefits and potential of geographical mobility.

In this Communication, the Commission outlines the current state of Community law on the free movement of workers, with a view to clarifying its complex, technical legislative framework and the considerable case law of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in this area. It identifies a number of recurring difficulties in four distinct but interrelated areas.

Free movement of workers

Any national of a Member State has the right to work in another Member State.

Community law on free movement of workers applies whenever a national of an EU Member State exercises his right to mobility, even if he has returned to his Member State of origin after exercising his right to free movement of workers.

The family members * of an EU citizen who is a migrant worker, irrespective of their nationality - i.e. including third country nationals - are entitled to reside with him. In addition, children of migrant workers are entitled to access to education in the host Member State, irrespective of their nationality.

The right of residence is an integral part of free movement of workers. Under current Community law, Member States must issue a residence permit to a migrant worker on the basis of his identity card or passport and proof of employment alone. Under no circumstances may an EU citizen's access to employment be made conditional upon obtaining a residence permit.

It follows from the Community principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality that migrant workers must be treated in the same way as national workers with regard to access to employment, conditions of employment and work and social and fiscal advantages.

On occasion, access to employment may be conditional upon linguistic requirements, provided they are reasonable and justified. Moreover, while a very good command of a particular language may be justifiable for certain jobs, a requirement for that language to be the worker's mother tongue is not acceptable.

Under the system of mutual recognition of qualifications, a Community citizen who is fully qualified in one Member State is entitled to exercise a regulated profession * in another Member State. Depending on the activity in question and the training completed, recognition will be either automatic or preceded by a period of adaptation or an aptitude test.

Social security

To facilitate the exercise of the right to free movement, migrant Community nationals must not suffer disadvantages in their social security rights.

Regulation (EEC) No 1408/71 establishes a system for coordinating social security systems. It lays down common rules aimed at ensuring that the various national social security systems are not applied in such a way that they discriminate against persons who are exercising their right to free movement. Community law has never sought to harmonise the field of social security, and the Member States have therefore retained their competences with regard to the organisation of their respective social security systems.

As a general rule, social security benefits are paid regardless of the beneficiary's Member State of residence. Special non-contributory benefits represent an exception to this rule. These benefits are paid only in the Member States in which such benefits are provided. As a result, they cannot be exported, but a migrant EU citizen is entitled to the benefits provided by the host Member State. To satisfy the conditions for non-exportability, a benefit must be special and non-contributory. The ECJ has ruled that a benefit is special when it is closely linked to the social environment of the Member State in question (benefits related to the prevention of poverty or to care for the disabled).

Regulation (EEC) No 1408/71 also lays down the conditions for access to health care for people moving within the European Union. Depending on personal status and/or type of stay, EU citizens are entitled to immediately necessary care, to care which becomes necessary, or to all sickness benefits in kind in a Member State other than the one in which they are insured against sickness as if they were insured there, but at the expense of the institution of insurance. For persons wishing to go to another Member State specifically to obtain treatment, the costs of such treatment will, under the co-ordination system set up by Regulation (EEC) No 1408/71, only be covered by the Member State in which they are insured if they received prior authorisation. However, the Court has held that, in the light of other fundamental freedoms, such as the free movement of goods and the freedom to provide services, such prior authorisation, if not justified, could be regarded as an infringement of these fundamental freedoms. It follows that, under certain conditions, patients may apply for reimbursement of medical costs incurred in connection with health care received in another Member State, even in the absence of prior authorisation.

Finally, determination of the Member State whose social security legislation is applicable is based on two basic principles: a person is subject to the legislation of only one Member State at a time and is normally covered by the legislation of the Member State where he or she engages in occupational activity.

The complex nature of Regulation (EEC) No 1408/71 does, however, make it difficult to apply. For this reason, it is currently being revised.

Frontier workers

As they divide their time between two Member States, frontier workers * are often faced with practical problems related not only to social security and social advantages but also to income taxation and retirement. In principle, frontier workers enjoy all the benefits available to migrant workers in the Member State of employment, but some Member States impose residence conditions for entitlement to social advantages. Frontier workers are entitled to unemployment benefit in the Member State of residence rather than the Member State of employment. They may choose the Member State in which to obtain health care, but when they retire, this choice between Member State of employment and Member State of residence disappears.


The legal texts which form the basis for the free movement of workers date back to the 1960s. They have since been supplemented by the Community institutions and, in particular, the case law of the ECJ.

Key terms used in the act

  • Worker: a person who undertakes genuine work under the direction of someone else, for which he is paid.
  • Family members: the spouse of the worker, his/her descendants who are under the age of 21 or are dependant, and dependant relatives in the ascending line. The term "spouse" means married partner and does not cover cohabiting partners.
  • Regulated profession: a profession that cannot be practised without certain specified vocational qualifications
  • Frontier worker: a person who lives in one Member State and works in another.


Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States amending Regulation (EEC) No 1612/68 and repealing Directives 64/221/EEC, 68/360/EEC, 72/194/EEC, 73/148/EEC, 75/34/EEC, 75/35/EEC, 90/364/EEC, 90/365/EEC and 93/96/EEC . [Official Journal L 158 of 30.04.2004].

This Directive is a partial response to some of the problems raised in the Communication. It makes the framework of legislation on freedom of movement for workers, which is both technical and complex, more accessible by combining into a single instrument provisions that are currently scattered among several different directives. It also provides a more precise definition of the concept of family member of a Union citizen and simplifies the formalities involved in exercising the right of stay.

Last updated: 24.08.2006