Patterns of migration in the European Union

March 13, 2019

By Katrin Marchand and Sarah Roeder

The principle of freedom of movement between EU member states is used by many EU28 citizens for a wide range of reasons: to seek better opportunities, to join or form family, to further education, etc. For third country nationals (TCNs), entering the EU is often an initial step towards possible future intra-EU migration. Yet it is difficult to effectively assess the causes and consequences of the right to free movement, for countries of origin and destination and their respective societies, labour markets, and social systems, without first having a good understanding of the patterns and dynamics of intra-EU migration itself.

Our new working paper aims to map these patterns and dynamics, looking at movement within the EU of individuals of EU28 origin as well as those from outside the region. The descriptive analysis is based on existing data, drawn largely from Eurostat’s online database of population statistics. This data allows the mapping of intra-EU migration patterns in recent years (for migrant stock data, between 2014 and 2017, and for data on migration flows, from 2013 to 2016). Throughout the analysis, three definitions of intra-EU migrants are used: citizenship (EU28 citizens versus TCNs), country of birth (born in the EU28 versus born in third countries) and, in the case of flow statistics, country of previous or next residence (depending on whether immigration or emigration is the focus). As well as analysing EU28-wide stocks and flows, the paper zooms in to explore intra-EU migration for five of the key migration countries within the EU28: Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

One of the main conclusions we reach is that, when analysing migration trends, metrics matter: different metrics often tell very different stories. For example, the total number of intra-EU migrants is consistently higher when using the country of birth metric than when using that based on citizenship. Likewise, it matters whether stocks are looked at in absolute numbers or in relation to the native or total population. When measured in absolute numbers, Germany, the UK and Spain are the countries hosting the largest number of intra-EU migrants; relative to population, it is Luxembourg, Cyprus and Ireland, with Luxembourg’s foreign residential EU citizens accounting for 40.7% of the total population.

Secondly, focusing on stock data alone paints an incomplete and simplistic picture of the patterns, and, in particular, the dynamics of intra-EU migration: it only provides static snapshots. Adding flow data, we show that many more people move between member states each year than the stock figures suggest. Additional analysis of country-to-country flow corridors reveals a high rate of return and, likely, circular migration, especially of Romanian citizens and natives.

Finally, we find that the level of analysis chosen plays an important role in the process of understanding intra-EU migration. For example, whilst the number of people moving across and within the EU has gradually increased in recent years, and are now higher than ever before, looking at the country level shows that the vast majority of the increase in migrant stocks was absorbed by Germany and the UK.

Several appendices are available alongside the paper itself, and provide access to the data used throughout the analysis. We hope that these may be of use in future investigations of this topic.

You can access the paper as well as the appendices here.

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