Ladies and gentlemen,
It’s a great pleasure to be here.
The MoveS network means a lot to the Commission. You are advocates of free movement, our advisors, and our ambassadors. I am glad to be able to thank you in person for your work. At this special and festive event.
Last year we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
This year, we celebrate landmark regulations that helped bring about one of Europe’s best-loved achievements: the freedom of movement.
You could not have chosen a more fitting location for this celebration. And not only because Zaventem airport also opened 60 years ago – to accommodate the millions of people visiting the Brussels world expo.
But because an airport is a transport hub. For persons, goods, services and, yes, also capital. A perfect symbol for the four freedoms, on which our Union is based. Free movement of persons involves travelling, but is of course much more.
Free movement has been enshrined in the Treaty of Rome in order to remove obstacles to the common market.
Free movement of workers and self-employed persons remains one of the pillars of our internal market. Meanwhile, free movement of persons has also led to an area without internal frontiers and the creation of the Schengen travel area without border checks.
Free movement is more than a fundamental right established by treaty. It is a living reality, enjoyed by millions.
This free movement could not be established in one go. It required legislation to make it concrete. And right from the outset it had to be accompanied with appropriate safeguards.
And today, we commemorate the first and crucial legislative steps.
First of all: sixty years ago this year, the Council adopted two Regulations on social security coordination.
Regulation number Three in September 1958. And Regulation number Four in December 1958. Two of the very first regulations of the European Economic Community. That in itself shows the importance of free movement to the European project.
At the same time, these Regulations immediately illustrated that you cannot have free movement of workers without guarantees for social protection.
Secondly: exactly 50 years ago today, on 15 October 1968, the Council adopted Regulation 1612. This Regulation translated the fundamental principle of free movement of workers into practical reality. Of course, it took implementation in the Member States to make these rules a reality. Thousands of national officials built the framework for free movement.
But we all know that it often also took courageous citizens who, confronted with administrative hostility or protectionism, had the guts to bring cases to courts. At this anniversary we also have to congratulate these brave citizens.
And their lawyers, who convinced judges to refer their cases to the Court of Justice – so that the Court could play its role as supreme enforcer of the fundamental right to free movement.
And we all know how important, the Court's case law has been.
This free movement is becoming more and more important, every day. In 2017, 17 million Europeans lived or worked in a different Member State. That’s 3.3 per cent of the EU population. And nearly twice as many, as ten years ago.
On top of that, there are 1.4 million cross border workers – a forty per cent increase since 2006. And 2.3 million posting operations.
This free movement of persons and services is fundamental to our economies and labour market.
The freedom of movement is good for workers – who can find more and better paid jobs – and for companies – who can find more and better trained staff.
It is good for growth in receiving countries. And sending countries benefit from skills, experience and capital once workers return.
Of course, if workers do not return, these advantages do not materialise. I understand that people are worried about this. I also want free movement to benefit everybody.
That brings me to the challenges we are facing as regards free movement.
First of all, there is the challenge to the internal market as an area without borders. This challenge comes from migration flows and from security threats. Sadly, this airport has also become a symbol of the threat of terrorism.
Together with the Member States, the Commission has been setting up necessary measures to protect our citizens.
For our discussion today, however, another challenge is on the agenda.
That other challenge has been there from the early days of free movement. It is the challenge to ensure that free movement and the internal market benefit society as a whole and do not give free rein to abuses or reduce social protection.
The Regulations that we celebrate today already responded to this threat. And so did the Court of Justice when it referred to workers' protection in its case law that interpreted free movement rights.
The Internal market is no jungle, no pretext for a race to the bottom.
In interpreting the Regulations that we celebrate today, the Court of Justice often had to strike a balance between preserving the right to free movement and allowing Member States to maintain protective legislation.
Certain judgments raised some controversy – in particular the Viking and Laval judgments. Even when judgments required Member States to adapt their legislation, they have nonetheless been accepted.
The textbook example of the Court sensitively balancing interests, is the posting of workers. The 2004 accession of low wage Member States sharpened the opposition of interests.
In Member States with higher wages, some perceived free movement as an instrument for unfair competition. Whereas sending Member States feared increased protectionism.
When we started with this Commission, it was clear we needed to take action to preserve the internal market and to create a European labour market that benefits all.
The objective to ensure fair mobility in Europe has inspired us to take the following initiatives.
First of all, we revised the Posting of Workers Directive. With as guiding principle: “the same pay for the same work at the same place”.
This was not easy. People bluntly told me “that’s impossible”. Eleven national parliaments sent “yellow cards”. Negotiations were tough. But we achieved our goal, supported by a large majority in West and Eastern Europe.
In the end, only 2 Member States voted against my proposal. You will have heard that these two countries now seek the annulment of the revised Directive before the Court of Justice.
I am confident that the revised Directive is legally sound. But I respect the Member States’ right to challenge it. That is how it works in a Union governed by the rule of law.
Following the revised rules, a Belgian worker and his posted French and Polish colleagues working on the same building site will receive the same compensation.
Concretely that means: posted workers will be entitled to the same pay package elements. That includes not just salary, but also allowances, bonuses and anything else. Whether set by law, or agreed in collective agreements that are generally applicable.
Secondly, we are modernising social security coordination. Because for free movement to flow flawlessly, we need to link social security systems seamlessly.
As I recalled before, that is exactly why our sixty-year-old legislative framework was created in the first place. The challenge today is to ensure that this legal framework remains clear and fair.
Fairness, that means for example: giving job seekers more time to find work, by extending their right to export unemployment benefits.
Fairness means also: saying no to the indexation of child benefits, also when these benefits go to children living in regions where living expenses may be lower. If workers pay the same contributions or taxes into a system, they should receive the same benefits from that system.
We cannot tell people that workers have the right to the same pay for the same job at the same place, and meanwhile allow that workers would receive different benefits for the same contributions to the same system.
Fairness also means fighting fraud.
Fraud is not only cheating. It undermines trust in free movement.
We best fight fraud by helping national authorities to work together. That is why the Commission wants clear deadlines for exchange of information between authorities.
We best fight fraud with solid facts. The social security information in Portable A1 Documents should be beyond dispute. We want the institutions that issue these documents to mobile workers to fact check them and to guarantee that they are correct.
We want any document based on an intentional fraudulent claim to be withdrawn immediately and with retroactive effect.
We have been pushing national authorities to set up an electronic exchange of documents. And we are preparing the ground to further advance digitisation with our work towards a European Social Security Number. Digital tools will make a difference when fighting abuses and fraud.
Allow me at this point to briefly refer to the recent case law of the Court of Justice. As I already indicated, it is not just the legislator or the Commission, who built free movement.
From the outset, citizens found an ally in the Court of Justice to turn this right into reality. The Court has been defending the right to free movement, but not without giving due weight to Member States’ legitimate interests.
I am pleased that in several recent cases, the Court of Justice stresses fair labour mobility, protects national social security systems, and takes a no-nonsense approach against fraud.
In the Dana and Alimanovic judgments, the Court confirmed that free movement does not give unconditional access to social benefit systems.
When revising social security coordination rules, we proposed to codify this case law as follows: Member states are entitled to refuse social benefits to mobile citizens who do not have a job, are not looking for a job and do not have legal residence.
In the Council, our proposal to codify this case law has so far not received sufficient support. I regret this, not only because such codification would enhance legal certainty, but also because it would prove to our citizens that free movement is not free for all: it is not a license for wrongdoers to commit abuses.
All together, we fight abuses where we find them, but in times of populism, it is important to calm unfounded fears of abuse of social systems.
Just six weeks ago, the Alpenrind case clarified another important point. If posted workers replace other posted workers, then the social security system of the host state applies. And not of the – usually cheaper – sending state. Even if a different employer posted the worker.
This judgment sets limits to the abusive practice of “chain-posting” one posted worker after the other.
In this judgment, the Court stresses the principle of equal treatment between workers carrying out work within the same Member State.
That principle underpins the general rule in social security coordination that it is the country of work, not the country of origin where social contributions must be paid. The situation of posted workers constitutes an exception to this general rule and should therefore be interpreted restrictively.
And the recent Altun and Commission vs Belgium cases, make clear, how national courts can fight fraud.
If national authorities suspect fraud or abuse with a portable document A1, they must first of all contact authorities in the issuing country.
But in cases of proven fraud or abuse, national courts – and only courts – can unilaterally invalidate A1 documents.
I am happy with these judgements. They send a clear message to employers engaging in fraudulent or abusive practices: you cannot hide behind national borders.
And they also send a clear message to national authorities: you should work together, to fight abuse and fraud.
Which brings me to a third proposal. Our proposal for a European Labour Authority.
It’s the crowning proposal of our mobility package. Because this is a Birthday party, let me put it this way:
The European Labour Authority is the cherry on the cake of a fair European Labour Market.
My Commission colleagues will present you this proposal in more detail later today. In a nutshell: we envisage an operational agency that will support national authorities in the application of the EU acquis on free movement of workers, posting of workers and social security coordination.
The Labour Authority will make sure that rules are not only clear and fair, but also effectively enforced.
By facilitating cooperation and information exchange between national labour authorities.
By digitalising the flow of information.
By helping to organise and supporting joint or concerted inspections.
By setting up training programs for national officers, carrying out risk assessment and contributing to capacity building.
By mediating, in case of disagreements.
By bringing national liaison officers together in the Authority which, in time, will foster a common enforcement culture.
The Authority will also play a key role in facilitating and simplifying access to information for individuals and employers.
In short, it will help to improve fair mobility and fight fraud – it is just what our European Labour Market needs.
Ladies and gentlemen,
60 years ago we started a journey in Rome. With many stops on the way. Including the Regulations, we celebrate today.
There’s another reason why Zaventem is a great location, for this event.
I often say, it’s not enough for our proposals to take off. They also need to land.
I’ve used this metaphor before. But this is the first time, I’ve used it, at an actual airport.
To make our proposals land, we need the whole crew to work together. We need the members of the European Parliament and of the Council to find agreement on the amendments they consider necessary.
In the coming weeks, I will dedicate all my energy to making sure these proposals land at their destination. I know I can count on your support as experts, to advise and encourage the decision-makers to do the right thing.
And once they land, we will have completed another leg of the journey. A journey towards a free movement, that is fair, clear and enforceable.
I wish you a very successful conference.