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EU immigration

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The EU has different policies for migration within Europe by EU citizens and immigration from outside the EU.

A founding principle of the EU is the right of free movement of persons, established in the Treaty of Rome (1957). This principle has developed over time, first applying only to workers and later to all EU citizens.  Many EU citizens live and work in other member countries and some even live on one side of a national border but work on the other. Large numbers of people also migrate to the EU from non-EU countries in search of work.

Recently the EU has expanded its role in managing immigration to counter the escalation of the refugee and migrant crisis which followed the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.


The Treaty of Rome (1957) established the right to free movement of workers and services in the European Economic Community (EEC) as one of the core principles of the EU.

In 1985, the Schengen Area was created to abolish internal border controls between participating countries.  It also established a common external border for countries outside of the Schengen Area. 26 European countries participate, including all four EFTA countries (Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland), whilst Ireland and the UK maintain opt-outs from the agreement.

EU members were allowed to set their own policy on migration. However, the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and the Tampere European Council (1999) gave the EU responsibility for setting a Common Immigration and Asylum Policy, which aimed to make migration safe and legally controlled. Despite this, Schengen states are permitted to reinstate border controls with another Schengen country for a short period if there is a serious threat to internal security.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in 2002 that non-workers were also entitled to free movement rights under the founding Treaty.  In 2004, the EU adopted the Citizen’s Rights Directive which further expanded the right to free movement to include non-workers. This allowed for the free movement of all citizens in the European Economic Area (EEA), as long as they do not place an undue burden on their host country. The right also extends to family members who are not EEA citizens.

Many immigrants in western European states came from former eastern bloc states. Although most countries restricted free movement from new member countries for seven years after they joined, the United Kingdom did not restrict access for the 2004 enlargement of the European Union and received Polish, Latvian and other citizens of the new EU states. Spain was not restricted for the 2007 enlargement of the European Union and received many Romanian and Bulgarian citizens.

In May 2009 the European Commission adopted the EU Blue Card system (similar to the USA’s Green Card) to allow highly skilled third-country workers to work in any of the participating EU member states, excluding Denmark, Ireland and the UK.

Modern EU Immigration

In 2013 a total of 3.4 million people immigrated to an EU member country. Of these, 1.2 million came from another EU member and 1.4 million from non-EU member countries.  Since April 2015, the European Union has struggled to cope with the migrant crisis, increasing funding for border patrol operations in the Mediterranean and proposing a new quota system to relocate and resettle asylum seekers among EU states to reduce the burden on countries on the edges of the Union. As a result of the migrant crisis and the Paris terror attacks Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden have re-imposed border controls.