Lack of Language Ability Hindering Labor Mobility in the EU

By: Damon Aitken

Does 24 Official Languages Mean 24 Barriers? 

Immigration is a hot topic in EU politics with recent surges in right-wing populism gaining impetus from anti-immigrant rhetoric. Though much of the focus has been on immigration from outside the EU, there exists a portion of the EU population that fears fellow EU citizens coming and taking their jobs. This is worrying, considering the fact that an essential right of EU citizens is the freedom of movement between member states and labor mobility is  of vital economic importance. Efforts  to increase intra-EU labor mobility have not succeeded in creating a truly open labor market.

The theory of an Optimum Currency Area (OCA) implies that labor mobility is essential for a currency union such as the European Monetary Union as it reduces the detrimental effects of a crisis and spreads skills across the market through an efficient allocation of resources. In crises, labor can move freely to a more successful part of the union and preserve employment across the board. In addition, free movement in theory makes a labor market more efficient by solving skills shortages and can smooth unemployment differences between member states even when crises are not present. This effect can be seen in countries such as the UK and Germany; which depend on migrational workers in the agriculture sectors to pick and prepare crops.

Representation of Median Wage Levels in the EU


The graphic above shows relative median wages in the EU member states with darker meaning  higher and lighter meaning lower. We would infer a large general westward migration from Eastern European countries where median wages are low. With every expansion of the EU, there has been concern in rich EU countries that expanding into the relatively poorer East would lead to a surge in migration from those countries. Though comparatively large numbers of people from expansion countries have migrated; there has not been the flood that politicians predicted. In fact, when the annual flow of EU citizens is measured; the 0.3% of EU citizens moving to another EU country each year is far lower than the 3% flow in the United States between states.

One phenomenon that European policymakers are concerned about is brain drain. Though labor mobility overall throughout the European Union will likely have positive effects on the EU labor market; highly-skilled workers could find themselves even more incentivized to move to successful member states. This could mean that workers in the thriving Estonian IT industry move to the startup hub Berlin; for example. However, less developed member states have an advantage in that low costs also make them attractive to firms looking to flee high rents in cities such as Vienna and Munich. An overall “brain drain” can be ameliorated by improving fortunes in poorer countries that convince workers to return home. This is seen in countries such as Slovakia and Hungary. In Hungary in particular, 73% of manufacturers are lacking workers. The long-term solution to brain drain simply is improving the economies of less-developed EU members and the trend appears to be reversing.

The main incentive for the movement of labor is comparative wage rates. Wages in Germany are significantly higher than wages in Romania. However, we do not see a massive rush of Romanians moving to Germany. Young and highly educated workers are those most likely to move. They have the highest amounts of human capital as highly-skilled workers and this allied to their greater flexibility in moving around means that have the best prospects. However, labor economic theory also takes into account the psychic costs of migrating for work. These are the simple facts that humans usually do not like to be away from familiar surroundings in a country where they do not speak the language. Though wage and quality of life considerations are often foremost in migrants’ minds, it can be outweighed by the daunting goals of cultural assimilation. This can lead to decreased job satisfaction and productivity. Learning another language is seen as a significant investment; especially when grows older and language acquisition becomes less intuitive. Cultural differences usually dissuade workers from considering other countries.

The European Union has incredible linguistic diversity with 24 official languages. However, the vast majority of these languages are only spoken by small populations in their home countries. German is the largest language measured by native speakers in Europe at 18% of the EU population but English is the most widely known overall. English was also deemed the most useful language to learn in a poll of EU citizens; which makes sense due to its status as an international lingua franca.  In the table below, it can be seen how the vast majority of children are learning English in school.


The other major languages in the EU, French and German do not have the same cachet. German has an advantage over French in the newer member states since many Eastern European nations have long prioritized German over French due to closer proximity to Germany or historical ties. The EU expansions as well as Germany’s larger population have led to a higher number of German speakers across the EU than French. Knowledge of German is estimated at 32% compared to 28% of the EU population knowing French. German proficiency is generally a requirement for working in Germany outside international firms or IT startups; meaning that it tends to be educated workers who move there. Nevertheless, the percentage of pupils learning German in school programmes declined by 5% across the 28 EU countries and is generally on the decline in individual countries.  French showed a decline of 3% while the level of English learners remained around the same.

The EU is aware of the importance of linguistic competence and has stated a goal of each EU citizen mastering two languages in addition to their native language. The extent to which populations of each member state have achieved this varies widely. 72% of adults in Luxembourg in 2011 reported mastery of 3 or more languages whereas 72% of adults in Ireland reported knowing no foreign languages. Though there are these success stories; the general trend seems to be that small, affluent Western and Northern European countries have higher linguistic skills.

One striking example in the EU is Belgium. This country is divided into Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south and the economic performances of these regions diverges greatly.  Unemployment rates are higher across Wallonia than in Flanders. They are overall about twice as high as in Flanders. Economic studies have targeted low geographic mobility as a driving factor behind economic quality. Despite this divergence, wages remain around the same level in the two regions partly due to extensive bargaining and a high level of worker’s rights. However; workers should be incentivized to move from Wallonia to Flanders to pursue jobs; not necessarily to seek higher wages. The language barrier in Belgium is significant as the French-speaking Walloons historically promoted French against Dutch; leading to severe discontent among the Dutch-speaking Flemish. The two regions (aside from the small German-speaking community) exist in largely separate cultural spheres with low intermarriage between groups. Linguistic and cultural differences lead to the low level of geographic mobility. Surveys of language ability in Flanders and Wallonia show that those living in Flanders are much more likely to speak multiple languages (i.e. French in addition to Dutch) and are especially more proficient in English; which helps with finding work. There is also a much larger number of people who learn French as a second language as there are of people learning Dutch (48% with French knowledge vs. 15% with Dutch knowledge)  This suggests the important role that language policy plays and the greater economic flexibility of the Flemish population. In allowing this degree of linguistic separation, the weak Belgian government contributes to weak economic outcomes.

Though language and related cultural differences are often the most direct barrier to workers; a lack of cohesive qualification standards is also an obstacle. This can be fixed more simply through policy. The EU has programs such as Europass (a sort of passport that displays a person’s skills simply) and the European Qualifications Framework provides a framework for comparing standards across countries. Firms will not tend to gamble on hiring workers outside their frame of reference. Qualifications act as signals of worth to employers and if the firm is not familiar or feel they cannot rely on a relatively unknown qualification then they will not tend to hire a worker.

Nevertheless, EU member states in the wealthier North and West benefit from workers coming from the east that plug labor gaps. The EU should take steps towards boosting labor mobility throughout the union by standardizing qualifications. In addition, commissioning studies looking at migration numbers between EU member states would help in assessing where bottlenecks are occurring. Sourcing better-quality data would help refute populist claims about a perceived flood of migrants coming into a country. There is a tricky balance that needs to be maintained between protecting the fascinating and unique languages that exist in each EU member state while having a more standard lingua franca. English is the de facto business language of the EU as it is in international business; but making it a de jure business language could assist business links between different countries and also aid those workers who have mastered English but not some of the less-commonly taught languages in the Eurozone. It must be noted that there have been calls for English to be removed from its position of prominence as if Brexit occurs; Ireland will be the only native English-speaking country left. This argument ignores the widespread role that English has and will continue to have. Expanding cultural exchange programs such as the Erasmus scholarship program for studying abroad would also allow more meaningful cross-cultural communication.

Works Cited

Barslund, M., & Busse, M. (n.d.). Labour Mobility in the EU: Dynamics, Patterns and Policies(Rep.). ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics. doi:0.1007/s10272-014-0495-x

Corbi, R., & Freguglia, R. (n.d.). Non-monetary Costs of Immigration and Adaptation to the Host Country (Rep.).

Estevão, M. (2002). Belgium : Selected Issues—Regional Labor Markets in Belgium (Country Report No. 02/43, Rep.). IMF.

Eurostat. (2017). Foreign Language Learning Statistics. Retrieved from

Eurostat. (2017). Foreign Language Skills Statistics. Retrieved from

The Economist. (2017, August 26). Eastern Europe’s Wave of Emigration May Have Crested. Retrieved from

Wagner, B., & Hassel, A. (2015). Europäische Arbeitskräftemobilität nach Deutschland (Rep.). Hans-Böckler Stiftung.