Social Security Coordination: Towards A Safety Net for All EU Citizens?

June 19, 2018

By Alexandra Embiricos

Free movement is one of the greatest achievements and a core pillar of the European Union. But it is also one of the most complex policy areas.

Coordination between 28 separate social security systems—including pensions and healthcare—is the ‘oil in the machinery’ that allows people to move between EU countries.[1] It should ensure that nationals of EU states enjoy the same rights as residents of the Member State they have moved to.

But grey areas exist that can leave some groups vulnerable to exclusion. For example, nationals of EU countries have their social security benefits covered by their country of residence, but social assistance is not covered by coordination rules and provision varies from state to state. Additionally, the principle of non-discrimination prevents intra-EU migrants from receiving the kind of integration support offered to people from outside the bloc, such as language or skills training.

These and other paradoxes are explored in Migration Policy Institute Europe’s research, which investigates tensions in social-security coordination and anxieties around freedom of movement more broadly.

The European Commission has now proposed measures to improve social security coordination.[2] These include policies designed to make intra-EU movement easier for those seeking work, proposing that people retain access to unemployment benefits from their home countries for six months after they move, up from three months. However, critics say this move is unlikely to have much of an impact on the employment prospects of mobile jobseekers as the local economy and language and skills tend to be more important.[3]

In the context of the changing nature of work and the rise in flexible or part-time work and advancing technology, the European Pillars of Social Rights[4] aim to protect and provide a safety net for all European citizens who move to gain skills and employment. However, the complexity of European social security coordination can make it difficult for mobile individuals to access the support they need in times of transition when moving to a new country.

For example, those who move to another EU country in search of a job, also called ‘mobile-non-workers’ face difficulties accessing the kind of help that could prevent destitution and homelessness. This is partly due to the distinction between social security benefits—a category that includes unemployment benefits, family benefits, pensions or maternity/paternity pay—and ‘social assistance’, which is the help many countries offer as a final buffer against poverty. As social assistance is not covered by EU coordination rules, this discrepancy could leave the most disadvantaged intra-EU migrants vulnerable to falling through the gaps.

Those particularly at risk include citizens who have lost their job without completing a year of employment in a Member State, or economically inactive family members who have lived in the Member State for less than five years and lose touch with the ‘worker’ they moved with.[5] In the latter case, this could leave EU citizens particularly vulnerable to homelessness in cases of relationship breakdowns, violence, harassment, or abuse – which accounted for 16% of homelessness in London in 2017 – and unable to access social assistance when needed most.[6]

Under current EU law, an economically inactive person’s country of residence should cover social security payments. However, access to social assistance has been weakened, particularly for mobile non-workers, by Member States’ desire to protect their national systems and gaps in coordination that could leave them in a state of limbo.[7]

The situation is made even more complex as each Member State draws the line between social benefits and assistance at different points. For example, the German benefits system for long-term unemployed, known as Hartz IV, incorporates both elements by helping jobseekers find work (following the logic of social security benefits) and guarantee minimum living standards (social assistance). The complex rules and interplay between national and EU legislation has led to confusion and punitive interpretations as to what constitutes social benefits and social assistance. In Belgium, this has even led to the premature expulsion of EU citizens.[8]

Although the causes of destitution and homelessness are often complex, such grey areas could potentially diminish the ability of vulnerable people to access support in their adopted country.[9] A 2017 survey in the United Kingdom found that the number of people from Central or Eastern European countries sleeping rough was second only to UK nationals. Out of 7,705 rough sleepers whose nationality was known, 39 per cent were from elsewhere in Europe.[10]

There are deeper problems, too, with the perception that free movement can create ‘welfare tourism’. In the United Kingdom, for example, public anxiety is rife over low-skilled, economically inactive migrants—from the European Union or elsewhere—putting strain on publicly funded systems such as the National Health Service.

Although research indicates that intra-EU mobility has a neutral or net positive effect on productivity and wealth (as demonstrated by Work Package 4 of REMINDER on Fiscal Impacts), the perception of abuse has led to attempts to pass restrictive laws to deter ‘welfare tourism’ and discourage migration.[11] For example, a recent bill in the United Kingdom proposed criminalising rough sleeping, which would have opened the way to deporting nationals from elsewhere in the European Union. The bill was eventually deemed unlawful by the British High Court because rough sleepers from other EU countries would have been subject to ‘less favourable’ treatment in violation of the principle of equal treatment.[12]

Among the policy proposals outlined in MPI Europe’s work is a mechanism by which the former Member State of residence would reimburse the new country of residence for social benefits for an amount of time.[13] A similar scheme already exists for healthcare with the European health insurance card, and would help to protect vulnerable citizens from destitution. Such a cost-sharing mechanism could help tackle perceptions of ‘benefits tourism’ and promote greater fairness and collaboration across the EU.

However, any movement in this direction would require more coordination between Member States, which could be tricky at a time when social benefits are being restricted and tensions between greater collaboration and respecting national sovereignty continue to grow.

Over the next year, MPI Europe will continue researching how gaps and grey areas affect mobile citizens.

MPI Europe has written three papers for the REMINDER project. These include ‘Free Movement in the European Union: An Audit’, ‘Rethinking Social Security Coordination: From Tinkering to radical reform’ and ‘EU citizenship and free movement: Troubled partners, or a mutually reinforcing relationship?’

You can read the papers here.

About the author

Alexandra Embiricos is a Research Assistant with MPI Europe, where she focuses on European asylum policies, social innovation for refugee inclusion into host communities, and economic integration of refugees.



[1] EU rules governing social security coordination covered by two regulations: Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 (the ‘Basic Regulation’) lays down the rules for the coordination for social security systems, while Regulation (EC) No 987/2009 sets out the procedure to implement the Basic Regulation

[2] European Commission. 2016. Proposal amending Regulation (EC) No 883 (2004) on the coordination of social security systems and regulation (EC) No 987 (2009) laying down the procedure for implementing Regulation (EC) No 883 (2004).

[3] European Commission, “Initiative to Partially Revise Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Coordination of Social Security Systems and Its Implementing Regulation (EC) No 987/2009,” Commission Staff Working Document (Brussels: European Commission), accessed December 22, 2017,

[4] In the context of the release of the European Pillar of Social rights, the European Union has laid out 20 ambitious and socially progressive key principles. These include every citizen’s right to active support to employment, such as transferring social protection during professional transitions, the right to unemployment benefits, housing assistance for the homeless and access to essential services.

[5]Giubboni et al (2017). Coordination of Social Security Systems in Europe. Directorate General for European Policies, European Parliament, Available at:

[6] Mayor of London (2017). Chain Annual report, Greater London, April 2016- March 2017.

[7] Giubboni et al (2017). Coordination of Social Security Systems in Europe. Directorate General for European Policies, European Parliament, Available at:

[8] Giubboni et al (2017). Coordination of Social Security Systems in Europe. Directorate General for European Policies, European Parliament, p. 32. Available at:

[9] FEANTSA (2011). Preventing Destitution of EU Citizens, Available at: FEANTSA (2018). Third Overview of housing Exclusion in Europe. Available at:

[10] Mayor of London (2017). Chain Annual report, Greater London, April 2016- March 2017.

[11] Damien Gayle (2015). ‘NHS hospital patients may have to show ID to access treatment’. The Guardian, 13 April 2015.

[12] In February 2017 UK Home Office published a Guide providing instructions on the administrative deportation of EU citizens and their family members. Prior to its amendment in December 2017, the Guide specified that rough sleeping was considered an abuse of the right of residence, and the possibility of deportation. FEANTSA (2018). Third Overview of housing Exclusion in Europe. Available at:;  BBC (2017). ‘Deporting EU rough sleepers from UK unlawful, High Court rules’. 14 December 2017.

[13] Meghan Benton and Liam Patuzzi. 2017. Rethinking Social Security Coordination: From Tinkering to radical reform. Brussels: Migration Policy Institute Europe.

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