Comment: Crossing the border

The growing animosity around the world to the influx of foreign nationals is not confined to refugees and asylum seekers. It equally applies to many permit-holding immigrants and workers covered, for instance, by European Union (EU) free-movement rules. The problem for employers is that popular prejudices influence government policies, making it harder to arrange intra-company transfers, hire top talent from abroad, and attract daily cross-border commuters.

Most country immigration rules contain limits for immigrations and require a “local worker” test to establish that there is no suitable national to fill a non-seasonal post. This can in some countries be just a routine formality, but in others be stringently applied.

Permanent cross-border controls are not permitted in the Shengen area of the EU, although passport checks can be made with EU member states outside the area, such as the UK. There are around 1.8 million cross- border commuters in the EU – amounting to 1% of the total working population – but the highest proportions of such commuters are from Slovakia (5.7%), Estonia (3.5%), Hungary (2.4%), and Belgium (2.3%) to neighbouring states.

Switzerland is not an EU member, even if it applies most EU laws. But each weekday, over 100,000 workers cross the border between France and the city of Geneva.

These mainly highly skilled workers are the life blood of the Swiss economy, but that has not prevented widespread public and political opposition to their presence, including an attempted petition to enforce a referendum on the open border policy and a social atmosphere affecting cross-border workers described as “toxic” by some French nationals.

Many border restrictions established to prevent the influx of Syrian and North African refugees have also hit cross-border commuters. This was the case from 2015 until last November on the Oresund Bridge linking Sweden and Denmark – both EU member states. 6,000 Swedish commuters cross the bridge by car each weekday to work in Copenhagen, and checks imposed by Sweden added over an hour to commuting time. The EU eventually forced the Swedish authorities to resume free movement but on the 12th of May 2018, checks were re-imposed until the 11th of November 2018 by Sweden. Restrictions over the same period have also been imposed by Austria (land borders with Hungary and Slovenia), Denmark (land border with Germany), Germany (land border with Austria), and Norway (all internal borders with an initial focus on ferry connections). France has imposed widespread checks on borders and internally due to perceived terrorist threats.

Although border control checks do not, in themselves, prevent cross-border commuting, they do act as a disincentive. They are just another complication, along with other procedures and uncertainties about living in one country and working in another, that border workers have to face. In the next issue we shall be looking at other barriers faced by such workers and what employers can do to alleviate the many bureaucratic burdens.

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