“Today, mobile lifestyles, such as commuting between two EU states, are a reality for many people. In this context, EU citizens from new member states, in particular, often fail to reap the benefits of their social rights and are even discriminated against by institutions,” explains Elisabeth Scheibelhofer, a sociologist at the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna. Scheibelhofer is one of four principal investigators from four “old” EU member states Germany, Sweden, Great Britain and Austria, who embarked on a three-year, multinational research project to find out whether the legal foundations are reflected in the personal experiences of citizens from “new” EU member states (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Poland) who live in one of the four “old” EU countries. In concrete terms, the project focuses on what is called the “concept of portability”: if you have worked in one EU country and paid into the social system there, you have the right, under certain conditions, to receive insurance benefits in another EU country. In theory at least, you are entitled to taking your social rights with you.
Research in four country pairs
“We were interested in whether the idea of anti-discrimination, which is also enshrined in EU directives on social security, actually reaches the level of the individual. Therefore, our qualitative interviews focused on the question of whether EU citizens with a mobile lifestyle are even aware of their social rights at all,” notes Scheibelhofer, who was in charge of the work package concerning qualitative interviews in the research project Transwel: Mobile Welfare in a Transnational Europe. An Analysis of Portability Regimes of Social Security Rights. The sociologist Anna Amelina, from the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, initiated and coordinated the investigations. Between 2015 and 2018, Scheibelhofer coordinated a total of 103 interviews with affected individuals and their closest relatives in their country of origin from all four pairs of countries. Some of the interviewees maintained close social, economic and cultural ties with people in their country of origin, thus living a “transcultural lifestyle”.
In four other work packages, the respective teams also examined legal regulations, as well as practices and discourses relating to portability. This resulted in the first comparative analysis of several EU member states, covering the entire spectrum from the legal bases to individual life experiences. The project was funded by Norface, an international association of national funding institutions such as the Austrian Science Fund FWF, following a call for proposals on the theme of “Welfare State Futures”.
Helpful sources are rare
“We found that the majority of respondents were unaware of their social rights. This is a core problem,” says the sociologist. There are multi-faceted underlying reasons, starting with the EU directives themselves, which are highly complex. “While there is a great deal of information on the websites of the EU institutions, only part of the material is easily accessible and intelligible,” adds Scheibelhofer. In this context, she is critical of the funding cuts suffered by the advisory offices of EURES, the central EU-wide network offering assistance for job seekers. The situation is similar at the national level, especially in the relevant institutions.
In the period from 2015 to 2018, for instance, information on social rights on the website of the Austrian Public Employment Service (AMS) was hardly available in any languages other than German, and the English texts provided were much less comprehensive. As a consequence, people translate the German texts on their own, which may result in misinformation. “Many people also mistakenly assume that the welfare system in the target country functions in the same way as in their country of origin,” notes the researcher. In Sweden, for example, unemployment benefits can only be claimed after one year of paying trade-union contributions.
Gap between theory and practice
In the case of the country pair Austria-Hungary, new mechanisms have been introduced at the AMS since 2015 to check eligibility for unemployment benefits, which affected the Hungarian citizens interviewed. Profiling on the basis of nationality, however, runs counter to the EU non-discrimination directive. A lack of transparency, inadequate or incomprehensible information, misinformation and sometimes even institutional discrimination constitute a mix that leads many respondents to benefit little or not at all from their social rights, which can result in major financial losses.
“Although, in global terms, the idea of freedom of movement is very progressive, there remains a need to clarify how one can prevent mobile citizens from falling through the safety nets of welfare states within the EU,” concludes Scheibelhofer. Today, the lifestyles of many people are strongly marked by mobility. But if the social dimension of EU citizenship is to be equally accessible to all, a whole range of measures at different levels are still needed.
Elisabeth Scheibelhofer is a sociologist and associate professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna. At the European level, she was a co-founder of the research network “Sociology of Migration” of the European Sociological Association. In September, a research project funded by the Austrian National Bank will be launched to address the challenges of job placement in the context of linguistic diversity, using the Austrian Public Employment Service AMS as an example.