Non-EU expats and their rights in Europe

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Euro Parliament recently passed a resolution to loosen the rules restricting non-EU residents living here. Could this mean more rights and less red-tape for you? Cormac Mac Ruairi reports.

"It's high time to dump the Fortress Europe concept", is the general sentiment amongst non-European Union expats who have to tackle a barrage of red tape as they try to live and work on the Continent.

Thus many viewed the resolution passed by the European Parliament in early February calling on the 15-member states to give more legal rights to legal, non-European residents as a step in the right direction.

"I came to Holland to set up my own business but gave up after being faced with a mountain of paper work and questions. Everywhere I turned I was faced with more paperwork because I didn’t have an EU passport," says Michael from Canada.

His frustration is not unique. Many expats find that having the "right" passport is crucial when trying to live and work in the European Union.

Are you a "third country" national?

"You often get treated as if you are just a back packer who is just passing through if you don't have an EU passport," laments another so-called third country national.

What rights are covered in the resolution?

Before passing the non-EU rights resolution, conservatives in the European Parliament were worried about the security implications of the move and they pressed for the requirement of third country nationals to learn the host language.

The final resolution was a compromise as voting rights and learning the host language became aspirations rather than requirements.

It did not really spell out what the other rights should be but hopefully some or all of the following will be taken up:

  • Opening up all areas of the job market, including freelance work
  • Allowing non-EU long term residents full access to government training schemes
  • Access to educational and study grants
  • Improving rights in relation to health care, social security and tax
  • Increasing equal access to legal system
  • Affording voting rights

Legal third country national is the title assigned to non-European nationals living within the EU.

"Their term covers everyone from Americans, Australia, Eastern Europeans, and people from African and Asian countries. It is estimated that there are about 18-20 million third country nationals living in the EU," says Julia Bateman research assistant for British MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford.

Ludford co-authored the report and resolution on the rights for third country nationals, which was accepted by the European Parliament by 409 votes to 89, with 28 abstentions, on 5 February.

The basic thrust of the resolution is legal residents from non-EU countries should have the same rights as EU citizens as a means of combating racism and xenophobia.

However, integrating third country nationals and recognising their contribution should also tackle the growing shortages across Europe of trained professionals like doctors, nurses, teachers and IT specialists.

“There are a lot of third country nationals who can contribute to the development of the type of dynamic and mobile economy needed in the 21st century,” Bateman says.

Where non-EU residents lose out

So what are the problems faced by third country nationals? It varies from country to country and to be fair the Netherlands is a long way from being the worst offender.

Back at the Tampere Summit in 1999, the EU states agreed to work together to fight illegal immigration but they also pledged to ease the legal barriers faced by legal non-EU residents who have lived in an EU country for a minimum of five years. But some countries have yet to grasp the nettle.

Political participation

One issue was political participation. The Netherlands (and Ireland, Denmark and Sweden) allow long term non-EU residents to vote in local elections. In contrast, other countries, and France in particular, don't like the idea of expanding the franchise.

What about national elections? If an expat has set up home in an EU state and pays taxes there, rather than being based there on a short-term assignment, why shouldn't they have a vote? The same applies to European elections.

Healthcare, employment and education

But non-EU expats are in general more concerned about equal access to health care and the employment market. Access to training and education can also be a problem.

For instance, civil service jobs involving the exercise of political power are not open to non-EU citizens. But there is no reason that ordinary state jobs should not be open to third country nationals.

Non-EU expats applying for a job in the EU also face the bureaucratic hurdle imposed by the need to prove that there is no suitable EU national who can do the job. Ludford's resolution won't solve this problem but it promotes a very important principle. The EU should not be a club proving a job exclusively for the EU boys and girls, but a massive economy in which both EU and non-EU labour has freedom of movement.

It is proposed that a person in this situation could work for three months in the second EU country. A word of caution however. Third country nationals who are legally residing and paying social security taxes in an EU Member State may find they are not covered by health care benefits if injured in another EU Member State.

The European Parliament wants to address these anomalies and Spain has said that the rights of third party nationals a priority of its EU presidency. But Bateman acknowledges there is a difficult battle ahead.

Is the EU serious about the resolution?

The resolution passed in February was non-binding and aspirational. But that doesn't mean it was an empty gesture. As Ludford said, '…the parliament is sending a strong message to the member state governments that the onus is now on them to get on and finally agree this measure, as they pledged to do at the [Tampere] summit'.

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