29th Mar 2023


Red tape border logjam for EU's 1.3m 'frontier workers'

  • Every day, around 1.3 million workers cross European borders to get to their place of work (Photo: Unsplash)
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Europe suffers from a shortage of workers, a mismatch between in-demand and available skills, and a growing ageing of its active working-age population.

Given the context, and with the European Union looking for a solution from workers from outside its borders, there is unexploited potential within the EU itself.

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Every day, around 1.3 million workers cross European borders to get to their place of work. They are known as frontier workers, even if the only difference between them and their colleagues is their place of residence.

That number does not sound impressive compared to the total European workforce of around 200 million, but the fact is that one-third of the total continental population lives in the regions connected (or divided) by up to 40 borders, if member states and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries such as Switzerland and Norway are added together.

"This is all there is in terms of potential for improving job opportunities for workers and enhance capacity of our businesses to find the right talents?", asked Marc Lemaître the EU Commission's director-general for regional and urban policy, to an audience of the event "Vibrant cross-border labour markets" last week. "I think this probably shows there is much more scope than that", he added.

According to a 2017 estimate of the Border Effect, the negative impact on the region's economic development, the executive cautiously estimated if just one in five barriers were removed from EU internal border regions, they could gain around two percent in GDP.

"The estimated impact on jobs is equally important, with potential for over one million jobs," stressed the document.

Yet although this evidence is already six years old, the legal tool proposed by the institution — the so-called European Cross-Border Mechanism (ECBM) — has still not got the go ahead, and the challenges are piling up, starting with teleworking.

Challenges and (possible) solutions

As Teresa Ventín, coordinator of the EU's cross-border Eures for Galicia-North Portugal, pointed out, while a national worker wakes up every day and has the sole concern of going to work, the cross-border worker also has to deal with bureaucratic procedures, social security or taxes in a non-native system.

"Having a one-stop shop for administrative procedures for these cross-border workers would take away this added complexity," Leyre Azcona, a project technician for employment, education and training in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Euskadi Navarre region, told EUobserver.

In this way, she says, it would prevent a document needed for the worker's social security from taking half a year, or to be able to carry out procedures online without the need for a postal address in the country of work, to give two examples.

Taxes are another issue that causes many headaches for this type of worker: where do I pay, who do I pay, how do I avoid overpaying?

In the northern Spanish region bordering the south of France, there is a double-taxation agreement, as in other European countries, but in this case it dates back to 1962. Azcona points out that updating this framework to today's new forms and realities of work would be one less obstacle for cross-border commuters.

Looking further afield, in countries such as Luxembourg, which shares a border with France, Germany and Belgium, the proportion of cross-border workers is four out of ten.

In other words, in 2021, around 213,000 people from these three countries worked in the Grand Duchy. A country where the average salary of a full-time worker in the construction sector, one of the largest employers in Luxembourg, was €46,689 gross per year. In France, just under €36,000.

Meanwhile, Spanish workers in this sector commute daily to the border with France. Whereas, from north to south, middle-aged workers in the service sector predominate.

Lemaître stressed at the opening of the event that European labour markets are nationalised, not regionalised. Therefore, although there are tools such as the European network of employment services (EURES) or rules for the coordination of social security systems to help cross-border workers, each region has a worker profile and specific needs that also require local and regional study and action.

Thus, the initiative managed by the Association of European Border Regions (AEBR) b-solutions, concluded that one solution to reduce internal obstacles lies in changes to the legal framework, but also in the use of complementary tools to enable local actors to overcome legal and administrative hurdles.

"Don't be afraid of the bilateral", repeated several of the speakers at the commission's conference.

Azcona qualifies this point: "More than bilateral, we need multilateral".

The key, she explains, will be to bring together all the actors who have the competences to reduce these obstacles and those who are on the ground to see what the problems are, what jobs are needed in a region, and what other jobs can be offered.


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