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Freedom of movement in the EU

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The right to free movement is one of the basic rights of EU citizens. This right is provided for in the Treaties governing the EU and in EU Directives and Regulations. This document describes the general rules on free movement. Broadly speaking, the provisions of the Treaties in relation to freedom of movement apply in the same way to the 10 member states that joined the EU in 2004, the 2 member states (Bulgaria and Romania) that joined in January 2007 and Croatia, which joined in July 2013, although some of the rules were not put into effect immediately under the transitional arrangements described below.

The EU Treaties have a number of provisions dealing with free movement of people and specifically with free movement of workers. The Treaties provide that "every citizen of the Union shall have the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States subject to the limitations and conditions laid down in the EC Treaty and by the measures adopted to give it effect".

The Treaties contain a general prohibition (ban) on discrimination on the grounds of nationality and they specifically state that freedom of movement for workers entails "the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment". The Treaty provisions on free movement of workers provide that, subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health, workers have the right to accept offers of employment and to move freely within the territory of the member states in order to take up such offers.

The main EU Directives and Regulations giving effect to the right to free movement of workers are:

(Directive 2004/38/EC is implemented in Ireland by the European Communities (Free Movement of Persons) Regulations 2006 and 2008.)

There have been several cases taken to the European Court of Justice which have clarified the rights of workers who move to other member states.

Rights of citizens of the new member states

When new member states join the EU, the terms and conditions which apply to them are set out in accession treaties. These treaties are then part of the overall treaties governing the EU. Special transitional provisions on free movement of workers were included in the Accession Treaties which apply to the ten member states which joined in May 2004 and in the Accession Treaties with Bulgaria and Romania.

These transitional provisions meant that the 15 states which were EU members before May 2004 (the original member states) had certain rights to limit free movement for a period. Citizens of Cyprus and Malta had complete freedom of movement from the start of their membership (but Malta may impose restrictions on other member states).

The ten member states that joined in May 2004

The following transitional arrangements applied to the other 8 new member states that joined the EU in 2004:

The transitional arrangements applied to employment. They did not apply to self-employment. This means that in general, citizens of the new member states had the right to set up as self-employed people in the existing member states from 1 May 2004. (There were some specific exceptions to this; none of these applies in Ireland). Further information on working in another EU country is available here.

The right to free movement is subject to some general restrictions and these apply to the citizens of the new member states in the same way as they apply to the citizens of the existing states.

Citizens of the new member states are entitled to live in any of the existing member states in order to study or as retired people. This right has always been subject to a number of restrictions and these apply in the same way to citizens of the new member states.

Further information on residence rights of EU/EEA nationals in other EU member states is available here.

From 1 May 2004 to 1 May 2006 (first two years)

The original member states were allowed to decide whether or not to impose restrictions on the right of free movement from the new member states. Ireland, the UK and Sweden allowed full free movement and the other countries applied some restrictions.

From 1 May 2006 to 1 May 2009

The original member states were still allowed to maintain some restrictions on free movement of workers. A number of countries – Finland, Greece, Portugal and Spain lifted all restrictions and the others retained restrictions but are gradually easing them

From 1 May 2009
In general, full free movement should have applied from 1 May 2009. There was a provision however whereby an original member state could ask the Commission to continue restrictions for a further 2 years if it was experiencing serious disturbances in its labour market.

There is complete freedom of movement from 2011 for the 10 member states that joined in 2004.

Bulgaria and Romania

Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007. The transitional arrangements in relation to free movement of workers which applied to them are as follows:

From 1 January 2007 to 1 January 2009
The existing member states (including the 10 that joined in 2004) may decide to apply restrictions on free movement. They did not have to notify the Commission of their intention to do so. Ireland decided to impose such restrictions. This means that citizens of Bulgaria and Romania were subject to the employment permit requirements which applied before they joined the EU. However, those who had been working in Ireland on a employment permit for a continuous period of 12 months or more prior to 31 December 2006 did not need a employment permit. No new legislation was required as the Employment Permits Act 2006 gives the Government the option of allowing full free movement or requiring employment permits. Workers from the 2 countries had preference over people from non-EEA member states.

From 1 January 2009 to 1 January 2012
Towards the end of 2008, the Commission reviewed the operation of the free movement rules. Member states had to notify the Commission of their intentions in respect of free movement for the 3 years until the end of 2011 – they could continue restrictions or could remove them. Ireland decided to continue the restrictions until the end of 2011.

From 1 January 2012 to 1 January 2014

Full free movement should have applied from 2012. There is a provision however whereby an original member state may ask the Commission to continue restrictions for a further 2 years if it is experiencing serious disturbances in its labour market. In December 2011 Ireland decided to maintain the current restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians until 31 December 2013. However on 17 July 2012 the Irish Government decided to end restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians accessing the Irish labour market with effect from 1 January 2012.

There is complete freedom of movement from 2014 for Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007.

Croatia

Croatia joined the EU on 1 July 2013. The transitional arrangements in relation to free movement of workers that apply to Croatia are as follows:

From 1 July 2013 to 1 July 2015

EU member states can choose to restrict the right of Croatian nationals to work in their country or in particular sectors. Ireland has decided to allow full free movement.

From 1 July 2015

The EU member states will be still allowed to maintain some restrictions on the free movement of workers. This transitional arrangement should in principle come to an end after 5 years but there is a provision whereby an original member state can ask the Commission to continue restrictions for a further 2 years if it was experiencing serious disturbances in its labour market.

From 1 July 2020

There will be complete freedom of movement from 2020 for Croatia, which joined in 2013.

Page updated: 5 September 2014

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