Do we need a new word to talk about the integration of EU mobile citizens in EU member states?

Freedom of movement is a pillar of the EU project, and yet little is known about the free movers and their experience of settlement in different EU member states

Nando Sigona

Apparently, I’ve learned from one of the presenters at IMISCOE 2018 in Barcelona, Italians are or were until recently the largest group of ‘migrants’ in Barcelona. Wandering in the city centre, Italian voices make frequent appearances in the city soundscape. While many Italians are tourists, there is also a sizeable population of them that have made Barcelona their home. For the European Commission they are not ‘migrants’, they are ‘mobile citizens’ or ‘free movers’. This distinction is not new in any way and it is policed quite strictly by the European Commission, at least in its own communications and publications. When it comes to the popular parlance and national media, the boundaries between EU and non-EU foreign residents become less clear cut. It is particularly noticeable in the UK since the EU referendum (see for example D’Angelo and Kofman 2018). The transition from ‘EU mobile citizens’ to ‘EU migrants’ and ‘migrants’ tout-court however started before and, rather than being a consequence of the referendum, some have argued  it laid down the groundwork for the victory of the Leave side[1].

Recently I attended a meeting in Brussels in which research proposals on migrant integration where considered. Many fascinating approaches were proposed and discussed but once again we were remained that only research on third country nationals (ie non-EU residents) was eligible for funding in the migration funding program.

Additionally, from the proposals it would seem that only the integration of groups that are assumed to be hard to integrate deserve to be the focus of most proposals. I didn’t come across to a single proposal that considered the integration trajectories of cosmopolitan elites or US/Canada/Australia nationals.

I appreciate the politics of naming and framing that informs our understanding of human mobility (see Sigona 2018 on the ‘refugee crisis’) and understand the European Union’s rationale for setting EU’s ‘mobile citizens’ apart from other foreign-born residents. The label serves to signal we are ALL part of the EUropean family and that ‘free movers’ play a central role in the construction of a pan-EU imagined community. However, I am also aware that we need a conceptual and policy space and a vocabulary to examine, analyse and discuss in greater depth the process of settlement and mobility trajectories of EU free movers in the EU. This is not to say that there is no research on this at all, but the research is patchy: some groups of population are covered far more than others – mostly we have research on those groups perceived somehow as ‘problematic’ (eg Roma, A8 nationals), and this research is mostly from the perspective of the receiving EU member states, the one that perceive a given EU population as ‘problematic’.

What is currently missing is an EU perspective and knowledge on the mobility and settlement of EU nationals in the EU. We need research that maps in far greater depth, both historically and in terms of geographical scope and population coverage, the mobility of EU nationals; research that tells us a bigger story about the role that this mobility over time has played in forming a pan-European identity and shaping the EU as an imagined community.  This doesn’t mean obscuring challenges and conflicts, but ensuring that the consideration of ‘problematic’ aspects is done through an EU gaze rather than a national one.

In the UK and particularly in British media, where arguably the resistance to the ‘EU mobile citizens’ frame has been stronger than elsewhere in Europe – for many Britons the EU is or should be only a free market arrangement –  until recently the label ‘EU migrants’ was routinely used almost exclusively to talk about EU nationals from accession countries. You would not find it applied to Germans, French, Swedes, Italians and Spaniards. Interestingly, these nationalities and their settlement in the UK and other EU states are also largely absent from the recent literature in migration studies. This means that little is known about their settlement trajectories and outcomes. Noticeably, since the Brexit referendum this has changed and the label ‘EU migrants’ is now routinely used for all EU citizens living in the UK.

While I appreciate that there are good reasons for wanting to retain different terms to refer to intra-EU mobility and those exercising it, I also think that time has come to find out more on how EU mobile citizens are doing, their settlement experiences and those of their children, those that arguably embody the future of the EU, the new EUropeans.

Rather than assuming that ‘us Europeans’ just blend in and avoiding even posing the question, it may be useful to collect evidence that this is actually the case and have a clearer picture of the outcomes of EU nationals in different member states. Comparing the experiences of settlement of non-EU and EU migrants may help us, for example, to better understand the factors that contribute or hinder positive integration in European society(s).  Cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona are laboratory for the EU to come, they host a growing population of Europolitan youth, for whom being European is a primary form of identification. What attract them to these places? In what way the European identity affects or shapes their lives in the places where they live?


[1] Together with Michaela Benson (Goldsmiths, University of London) and colleagues from the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, we have produced three podcasts on the theme with the contributions of scholars and activists. They are based on a conversation we held at the British Library last May 2018.


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