European Union

Background InformationSeats of Government: Brussels (Council of the European Union, European Commission), Brussels and Strasbourg (European Parliament), Luxembourg (Court of Justice)
Official languages:
French and English (main working languages) plus 21 other official languages
4.2 million km2
Population (2007):
497 million
Population density (2006):
114.8 persons per km2
Population growth (2005):
+ 297,300
Labour force participation rate (2006):
Foreign population: (2007):
28,861,974 (5.8%) (Eurostat - EU 25)
Percentage of foreign employees amongst gainfully
employed (2007):
Unemployment rate (2006):

Whereas the right of EU citizens to move and reside freely within the territory of member states is one of the fundamental freedoms of the European Single Market, and was already provided for in the Treaties establishing the European Community12

Historical Development of Migration

Historically, experiences with international migration have differed from country to country within the European Union, and continue to do so. This diversity in the nature of the problems associated with immigration represents a substantial obstacle to the development of a common European migration policy. Whereas on the one hand former colonial states such as Belgium, France or the United Kingdom were already immigration countries in the 19th century, other European states, such as Germany3

The Many Faces of Migration in The EU

Poland now show negative immigration balances, although even the Netherlands recorded more emigration than immigration in 2007 (Figure 1).

The percentage of foreign population in the EU member states extends from less than 1% of the total population (Slovakia) through to 39% (Luxemburg). In most countries, however, the foreign percentage is between 2% and 8% of the total population (see Table 1). In all EU member states excluding Luxemburg, Belgium, Ireland and Cyprus, the majority of the foreign population is made up of so-called third country nationals, i.e. non-EU citizens.

(ethnic German immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union).4

The geographical origin of the biggest immigrant groups also varies conspicuously from one member state to another and reflects primarily historical experiences and geographical proximity. Thus, for example, in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, Turkish citizens make up the biggest group of foreigners. By contrast, citizens of former colonies are numerous in Portugal (Cape Verde, Brazil and Angola) and in Spain (Ecuador and Morocco). For historic reasons, and for reasons of proximity, the majority of foreigners in Greece are from Albania, the majority in Slovenia from other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and citizens from the former Soviet Union are most significant among the foreign populations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania5

Institutional Basis of European Migration Policy

European cooperation on matters of asylum and migration policy has been communitised6Romania and Cyprus. Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are associated with the Agreement as non-EU member states.

Intergovernmental cooperation within the Schengen framework can be regarded as the driving force and laboratory for EU-wide cooperation in matters of migration policy and, over and above that, in criminal and police issues.7 The coupling of cooperation on migration policy with questions of internal security has also given rise to a focus on control aspects of immigration policy.89acquis10 in recent years have also had a powerful influence on the dynamics and direction in which European cooperation has developed. Thus the 1999 Tampere European Council underlined the humanitarian basis of European asylum policy and the binding force of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. A programme of action was agreed for five years to accompany the implementation of the Amsterdam treaty. In 2004 in Den Haag, the European Council extended this action plan for the following five years to include new focal points, in particular the external dimension of EU asylum and immigration policy. This aims at a stronger involvement of transit states and countries of origin outside the EU in the control of migration flows.

The directives and regulations concluded in the context of these institutional and political principles are discussed in the following sections.

Immigration Policy

Directive 2003/86 establishes common minimum standards for the right to family reunification. Apart from the directives on the admission of students and researchers (see below), it is to date the only regulation at European level concerning the influx of third-country nationals. Third-country nationals may apply for family reunification if they possess a residence permit issued by a member state and valid for at least a year, and if they have justified prospects of obtaining a permanent residence permit. Refugees are excluded. The spouses and unmarried or under-age children of legally resident third-country nationals can exercise the right to family reunification (core family concept). Within the context of national law, however, member states may consider the admission of other family members under the right to family reunification (extended family). Human rights groups and the European Parliament are especially critical of the possibility that member states may refuse residence to minors who have passed the age of 12 if they do not satisfy more strictly defined integration requirements. The power of member states to require potential family migrants to take steps towards integration even before entering the country (such as acquiring a command of the language) has also been met with criticism. A complaint brought before the European Court of Justice by the European Parliament that these regulations were contrary to international human rights standards was, however, dismissed.

Integration Policy

Irregular Migration

In light of increasingly selective immigration regulations since the 1970s and ever more restrictions with regard to asylum, there has been a strong increase in irregular migration across Europe. Naturally there are no reliable figures on this phenomenon. Estimates of the number of migrants who are not in possession of regulated residence and/or work permits are mostly based on the number of persons seized. According to one current estimate, there are between 2,8 and 6 million persons in the EU who do not have regular residence status.11 Moreover, it is assumed that about 350,000 to 500,000 new irregular migrants are added to this figure each year.

If we consider the large number of regulations, measures and high level of cooperation in this area, then, without a doubt, the fight against irregular immigration can be regarded as the focal point of European cooperation in matters of migration. Even the 1990 Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement contained strict rules on checks at external borders, provisions concerning penalties for haulage companies that transport people with no entry documents, as well as restrictive visa regulations. In addition, cooperation in matters of repatriation and migration control with countries of origin and transit forms a focal point of measures against irregular migration. The Council of Ministers has yet to agree on a 2007 European Commission proposal12 The strengthening of this agency can likewise be regarded as an act of solidarity towards countries on the external borders of the EU, which are confronted to a particularly large degree by the problems of irregular immigration, not least due to tightened immigration controls.

A further dynamic focal point of measures to combat irregular immigration concerns cooperation with countries of origin and transit as well as repatriation policy. The Schengen states recognised early on the advantages of a coordinated procedure for matters of repatriation by concluding a multilateral readmission agreement with Poland in 1991. The Treaty of Amsterdam transferred the power and responsibility for concluding readmission agreements with countries of origin or transit to the European Commission. The insistence on establishing an obligation in the agreement to readmit even persons who are neither citizens of an EU member state nor of the third country concerned, however, has considerably limited the success of negotiations for such agreements. Since under international law a country is only obliged to readmit those of its own citizens who have been staying illegally in another country, to date important transit states such as Morocco have resisted concluding such a comprehensive readmission agreement. By contrast, it has been possible to secure the agreement of eastern European neighbours such as Ukraine and Russia in exchange for eased visa issuance procedures.

Repatriation policy is embedded in a more comprehensive cooperation with countries of origin and transit, which has become the true focal point of European cooperation in matters of asylum and immigration policy, especially since the 1999 European Council meeting in Tampere.1314

Refuge and Asylum

Whereas migration balances for EU member countries have grown continuously since the 1990s, the number of asylum-seekers has declined sharply since 1993 (see Figure 2). This is attributable not so much to a diminution in reasons for leaving the countries of origin as to the tightening of asylum policy, which to a large extent has been coordinated at the European level (see below). The sharpest decrease is recorded in Germany: compared with the absolute peak of 438,190 in 1992, the number of asylum applicants has declined significantly, comprising around 20,000 applications a year since 2006. Whereas the total number of asylum applications in the EU has decreased by almost half since 1999, individual countries on the external EU borders such as Greece, Malta, Spain and Hungary record growing numbers.

1516 The falling numbers of asylum-seekers in the EU documents the effect of restrictive regulations in policies on admission, visa and asylum procedures, while states on the periphery of Europe such as Ukraine, Morocco and Libya are confronted by an ever growing refugee problem.

European Union Citizenship

jus sanguinis) as well as the principle of awarding citizenship to persons born within their territories (jus soli) (see Table 2), there is no comparable liberal trend discernible where naturalisation regulations are concerned.17 Despite the institution of Union citizenship, the EU has no powers that could touch upon national citizenship regulations.

Future Challenges


With the strengthening of supranational actors, the Commission, the Parliament, and also the European Court of Justice, the thematic agenda of cooperation has been extended significantly in recent years. On the agenda today are first steps towards a common admission policy for labour migrants, greater standardisation of asylum systems, the creation of instruments for member states to share the burdens of migration policy in a spirit of solidarity, plus a comprehensive foreign policy agenda linking migration policy goals with development policy priorities. In view of the heterogeneity that has evolved within the Union and the continuing emotional debate on migration on the domestic front, a preference can be seen for less prescriptive, predominantly operative coordination, coinciding with cautious and somewhat reluctant harmonisation. Continuing external migration pressure as well as the demographic development within the EU will, however, continue to promote integration towards a common European asylum and immigration policy.


  1. See Lavenex 2006a.
  2. See Eurostat 2008.
  3. See OECD 2007.
  4. See OECD 2007.
  5. See Monar 2001.
  6. See Boswell 2003, Geddes 2007, Lavenex 2001.
  7. The European Council brings together the heads of state and government of the member states, plus the President of the European Commission.
  8. For more information, see the hompage of the CLANDESTINO project, which is sponsored by the European Commission.
  9. See, for example, Geddes 2008.
  10. See Lavenex 2006b.
  11. See Lavenex and Kunz 2008.
  12. See Green Paper 2007.
  13. See Lavenex 2007.
  14. See Eurobarometer 2008.
  15. See Ette and Faist 2007.

Die Autorin:
Sandra Lavenex


Literature and Further Reading

    • Ette, A. and Faist, T. (Eds.) (2007): The Europeanization of Migration Policies. London: Macmillan.
    • Eurostat (2006):
    • Eurostat (2008): Population in Europe 2007: first results. Population and Social Conditions - Statistics in Focus 81/2008.
    • Eurobarometer (2008): The Role of the EU in Justice, Freedom and Security Policy Areas, Special Eurobarometer 290, Brussels.
    • European Commission (2007): Green paper on the future Common European Asylum System. COM(2007) 301 final.
    • Geddes, A. (2007): Immigration and European Integration. Towards Fortress Europe? Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    • Lavenex, S. (2001): The Europeanisation of Refugee Policies. Between Human Rights and Internal Security. Aldershot: Ashgate.
    • Monar, J. (2001): "The Dynamics of Justice and Home Affairs: Laboratories, Driving Factors and Costs." Journal of Common Market Studies 39(4): 747-764.
    • OECD (2007): International Migration Outlook. Paris.

Internet Sources

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.