Researchers: Moving trucks going from Denmark to Sweden show how the migration policies of EU states may affect other member states

When Denmark made its rules on family reunification stricter in 2002, this resulted in more people moving to Sweden. This shows how the migration policy of one EU state may affect other member states, according to economists Cristina Bratu, Matz Dahlberg and Till Nikolka in a new SNS report.

In June 2002, Denmark reformed its rules for Danish citizens wanting to reunite with partners from countries outside the EU to make them stricter. All of a sudden, there were tougher requirements on everything from age and income to savings and housing. The Swedish rules on family reunification at this time were not nearly as strict. This resulted in many affected couples deciding to settle on the Swedish side of Oresund, according to analyses in the new SNS report Spillover Effects of Stricter Immigration Policies.

“Freedom of movement within the EU enabled Danish citizens to move to Sweden in order to reunite with their partner in accordance with Swedish rules instead. Hence, the Danish reform had unintended effects on Sweden, what we in the report refer to as spillover effects,” says Cristina Bratu, researcher in economics at Aalto University.

Before the Danish reform went into effect, only a very small number of individuals moved from Denmark to Sweden to form a family. Following the reform, however, this came to amount to some 350 people every six months. The effect is thus clear, even if it is small in relation to overall migration. The proximity between the two countries and the good connections across Oresund obviously played a role for the “love refugees,” as they were referred to in the media. However, the researchers believe that there are lessons here that may be applied to other EU member states.

“We do not believe that the result should be seen as something unique for this particular case involving Sweden and Denmark. When migration policy becomes more restrictive in a particular EU state, this may result in migration flows to member states with more generous rules,” says Matz Dahlberg, professor of economics at Uppsala University.

Such spillover effects can also play a major role in policy choices. When no country wants to be most generous, according to the researchers, there is a risk of a kind of “race to the bottom.” As an example, they highlight how Sweden too adopted a more restrictive migration policy in relation to the 2015 refugee crisis, which has been interpreted as adapting the Swedish rules on family reunification to the minimum level in the EU.

“As long as there is no harmonization of migration policies in the EU, individual member states will probably continue playing this kind of political game,” says Till Nikolka, researcher in economics at the German youth council.

about the report

The study is based on a unique data material using registers of the entire Swedish and Danish populations. The researchers show that such regulatory changes actually cause these migration patterns by using established microeconometric methods.

about the authors

Cristina Bratu is a researcher in economics at Aalto University in Helsinki.

Matz Dahlberg is a professor of economics at Uppsala University and working at the Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy (IFAU).

Till Nikolka is a researcher in economics at the German youth council Deutsches Jugendinstitut (DJI).