If we were a country, we would be more populous than the Netherlands or Belgium and only slightly smaller than Romania. As such, we would be entitled to elect up to 26 members of the European parliament next month. In reality, though, we aren’t a country and have no real political representatives.
Who are we? We’re the 17 million EU citizens who live in another member state of the union (including the 3.7 million living in the UK). In the last decade we have doubled in number and today represent 4% of the EU working-age population. This may seem small in comparison with the US, where 41% of its citizens live in a state other than the one of their birth – but it is still an unprecedented figure in the history of the continent.
It reflects a growing yet unnoticed Europeanisation of our societies, further accelerated by job precarity and the fallout of the financial crisis. In addition, at least 2 million citizens commute daily across borders, and hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers move across the continent to take up low-wage jobs. Together we comprise 20 million EU citizens spread across the continent.
This geographical dispersal, engendered by decades of free movement and open borders, renders our count imperfect. Many of us don’t bother to register when changing residence and often live in an administrative limbo between countries. There’s an inherent byzantine complexity in this Europe-in-the-making. Examples range from the Romanian Uber driver in Belgium with a Spanish driving licence to the Greek doctor with an Italian university degree living in Germany, or the Bulgarian seasonal fruit picker in the UK married to a Moldovan.
The collective imagination portrays us as a European elite, the happy few who, perhaps having benefited from the Erasmus study programme, criss-cross the continent in search of self-improvement. It’s the sort of belief that led Theresa May to suggest that the 3.7 million EU expats living in the UK were people jumping the queue. Yet a look at the actual data reveals a clearer picture.
We – the 17 million EU “mobile” citizens – come from all 28 member states, with more Romanians than Germans choosing to emigrate elsewhere in Europe. We tend to have a higher employment rate than those people residing in the country of their nationality.