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08 January 2024

Study highlights nuanced views on EU's freedom of movement

Public attitudes to the European Union’s principle of free movement are highly nuanced and show the challenge policy-makers face in creating a sense of community across the continent that supports all transnational rights.


In a new study, academics found the public were broadly supportive of several key tenets of free movement, including the right to live, work and do business in any EU member state, but there was significant opposition to the right to access welfare resources.

And scepticism to the right to access welfare in another EU state was also evident among those who would typically be supportive of the EU and its policies, including those with a European identity and the highly educated.

The findings were revealed in a new paper, Free to move, reluctant to share: Unequal opposition to transnational rights under the EU's free movement principle, co-authored by Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou, of King’s College London, Dr Aleksandra Sojka (Charles III, University of Madrid), and Dr Liisa Talving (University of Tartu).

Data for the study was drawn from more almost 1,700 responses to a survey carried out in the UK in 2017, in the week that Brexit negotiations began between the UK and EU.

The survey revealed a majority of respondents believed that EU citizens should have the right to live (62.9 per cent), work (64.7 per cent), and do business (75.7 per cent) in the UK. However, the right to receive welfare stood out, with more people rejecting (44.4 per cent) than supporting (32.8 per cent) it.

The results were similar when respondents were asked about transnational rights for UK citizens in EU member states. The majority believed they should have the right to live (66 per cent), work (69.1 per cent), and do business (77 per cent) in the EU. Only 36.6 per cent agreed they should be entitled to receive welfare it in the EU, with 40 per cent in opposition.

The academics found people with an identity inclusive of a European element (British and European, European and British, or European only) were more supportive of EU citizens’ rights compared to those who identified exclusively as British.

However, despite clearly differing views on all four transnational rights, both groups’ attitudes were much more negative when it came to welfare access.

The academics said: “Support for EU membership does not necessarily entail automatic endorsement of proposals, which might imply pooling or sharing resources that have thus far been nationally framed.

“In these terms, EU membership supporters’ relative opposition to transnational welfare points to the limits of creating a political community at the EU level, without feelings of commonality, belonging, and transnational solidarity.”


You can find out more about the study, published in the journal European Union Politics, here.

In this story

Sofia Vasilopoulou

Professor of European Politics