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Role of European Mobility and its Impacts in Narratives, Debates and EU Reforms

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Unravelling the actual and perceived impact of intra-EU migration

With the EU’s freedom of movement often targeted by populist parties, there is a need to unpick fact from fiction. REMINDER investigated the social and economic consequences of intra-EU migration (or ‘mobility’) and how these relate to the media, public opinion and policy.

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If ‘free movement of persons’ – one of the EU’s four pillars – is to remain fundamental to the European project, then what people both value in and fear about it has to be better understood. While the EU-funded REMINDER project’s interactive website provides a comprehensive overview of the range of intertwined mobility issues explored, some findings stand out as offering unique insights into the numbers, impacts and public debates underpinning what we know, or think we do, about European mobility.

Telling stories

When the researchers looked at intra-EU mobility flows, based on EU Member States’ official statistics (available in REMINDER’s ‘Database of Databases’, the data revealed the significance of return to country of origin migration. The biggest single flow was of returning Romanians (approximately 90 000 in 2016), a finding which challenges narratives representing intra-EU mobility as one-way (in this case, East to West). Regarding mobility’s impact on public finances, REMINDER found that while EU migrant workers tend to have an overall positive net fiscal effect on the public finances of EU immigration countries, they tend to generate a net negative effect on host states’ unemployment benefit system. The researchers did however point out that this ‘fiscal burden’ was small. “This gets to the heart of areas where policies, in this instance how we structure welfare systems, need to reassure critics of ‘free movement’ that mobile populations are not simply taking without contributing. The need for a sense of reciprocity is clearly important for people,” explains Carlos Vargas-Silva, Director of COMPAS, Associate Professor at the University of Oxford and consortium leader for REMINDER. On the media’s role, surprisingly little attention had been paid to intra-EU mobility by the press in most countries (compared to that of third-country national migration). The exception being the former EU Member State the UK, where national media was preoccupied with intra-EU mobility due to the Brexit debate and the levels of migration following the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004 and 2007.

Multidisciplinary research techniques

To explore public opinion, amongst other methods, REMINDER conducted a public panel survey (repeated three times, over 11 months) with 7 000 people, as well as an online experiment consisting of a test for short-term effects where respondents were shown different migration-related news articles and were then asked about their approval of free movement. The results suggest that there is a relationship – in particular circumstances – between negative media coverage about migrants and free movement, but there is little differentiation by the public between EU and non-EU flows. Analysing the influence of traditional media, social media, political party and civil society communications, across Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK presented a daunting quantity of information, in multiple languages. REMINDER used a combination of computer assisted techniques to translate around 140 000 news articles into one target language (typically English). The results were cross-checked by native speakers in each of the source languages, who added country- and culture- specific context.

A go-to resource

“This research comes at a critical time, as the international rise in populist and nationalist politics means that the European project as a whole faces challenges it has never before had to contend with,” says Vargas-Silva. With much of REMINDER’s work already featured in academic journals, the team are promoting their results, as an evidence-based go-to resource, for policy-makers, the media and civil society organisations.


REMINDER, freedom of movement, migration, welfare, policy, populist, public opinion, media, press, languages

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