Freedom of movement in the EU
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:
- Regulation No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union
- Directive 2004/38/EC (pdf) on the right of EU citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the member states
(Directive 2004/38/EC is implemented in Ireland by the European Communities (Free Movement of Persons) Regulations 2015.)
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, Romania and Croatia.
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 10 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.
Since 2011, there is complete freedom of movement 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:
The existing member states (including the 10 that joined in 2004) could 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. The Irish Government decided to end restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians accessing the Irish labour market with effect from 1 January 2012.
Since 2014, there is complete freedom of movement from 2014 for Bulgaria and Romania.
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 could choose to restrict the right of Croatian nationals to work in their country or in particular sectors. Ireland 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.
United Kingdom (UK) leaving the EU
On 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU. The UK leaving the EU is known as ‘Brexit’ (short for ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’). You can read more about Brexit and the implications this may have for the free movement of people.