International social security agreements in Europe

International social security agreements in Europe

While the first international social security agreements were established in the 1940s and earlier, there are today 627 bilateral and 19 multilateral agreements in force. European countries and territories are part of over 80 per cent of them. In this article, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) examines the evolution of such agreements, with a focus on European contracting countries, in light of increasing migration flows and various forms of work migration.

The number of migrant workers worldwide is growing, representing 169 million workers in 2019 and roughly 62 per cent of international migrants (ILO, 2020). While migration was slowed by the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a robust recovery in migrant flows since this time (Benton et al., 2024). Despite their significant contributions to the host country’s labour market and society, migrant workers often face difficulties accessing social security benefits (Kazi-Aoul et al., 2023). These challenges arise from their inability to fulfil qualifying conditions, such as required years of affiliation/residence and nationality requirements (ILO, ISSA, ITC, 2021).

Additionally, posted workers, who carry out their work in the territory of another State for a limited period, instead of the State in which they normally work, must comply with the social security regulations of both countries, which may require them to pay double contributions.

Countries can take different measures to address these issues, improve migrant workers' social protection, and foster workers' formalization and compliance with social security contribution regulations. On the one hand, countries may apply unilateral measures, such as reducing minimum qualifying periods, not applying nationality restrictions to access social security benefits and facilitating payments abroad. On the other hand, two or more countries may establish international agreements to coordinate social security regulations (Kazi-Aoul et al., 2023; ILO, ISSA, ITC, 2021; ISSA, 2022).  

Social security agreements, as a key legal instrument, hold immense potential to enhance the portability of social rights. This refers to the maintenance of acquired rights and rights in course of acquisition while living in different countries. They ensure that employment periods in the contracting countries are considered for qualification, thereby facilitating access to benefits by totalizing qualifying periods or other means. By determining the applicable law, these agreements also play a crucial role in preventing double contributions of workers who are temporarily posted to a different country, contributing to workers’ formalization and employers’ compliance with social security contributions (ILO, ISSA, ITC, 2021; ISSA, 2022).  Most international social security agreements are bilateral – between two countries – but some are multilateral and allow several countries to coordinate parts of their social security schemes.

Social security agreements differ in their extent and provisions. The social security branches most often incorporated under a social security agreement are old-age, disability and survivor benefits (ILO, ISSA, ITC, 2021).  Some social security agreements have a more limited scope; for instance, they contain benefits access provisions but no provisions to prevent posted workers’ double contributions and vice-versa (ISSA, 2022).

European countries and territories are one of, or both parties, in 84 per cent of the active bilateral social security agreements worldwide. Their reliance on this tool is partly due to the importance of migration in the region and the fact that they have older and more developed social security systems.  Looking at the European Union (EU) in 2023, 6.1 per cent of residents were non-EU citizens, and this trend is growing, with flows of non-EU migrants increasing by 117 per cent between 2021 and 2022 (EuroStat, 2024). Additionally, among EU citizens, 3.8 per cent of working age individuals resided in an EU country other than that of their citizenship, while 1.7 million were cross-border workers (persons who work in one country and live in another) and 4.6 million posted workers (European Parliament, 2024).

Box 1. ISSA classified European countries and territories

For the ISSA, Europe covers the countries and territories listed below:

 

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  • Albania
  • Andorra
  • Armenia
  • Austria
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Belgium
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Georgia
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Guernsey
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Isle of Man*
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Jersey
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kosovo, Republic of
  • Kyrgyz Republic
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macedonia, Republic of
  • Malta
  • Moldova, Republic of
  • Monaco
  • Montenegro
  • Netherlands 
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Russian Federation
  • San Marino
  • Serbia
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Tajikistan
  • Türkiye
  • Turkmenistan
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom
  • Uzbekistan

* For the purposes of this analysis, the Isle of Man has been excluded, because the United Kingdom (UK) includes it within the definition of UK territory for most social security agreements (except in agreements between the UK and the Isle of Man).

This article will examine the evolution and current state of bilateral and multilateral agreements, with a focus on agreements involving European countries and territories.

Bilateral and multilateral agreements globally: Evolution over time

Looking across the world, Europe has the highest number of bilateral social security agreements. It is a contracting country in 526 of the 627 bilateral agreements in force worldwide (84 per cent). Shown in Figure 1, the number of bilateral social security agreements has been rising at an average annual growth rate of about 7 per cent over the past 80 years. The growth in agreements involving countries from Europe has been in line with this overall global trend.

Figure 1. Total number of bilateral social security agreements over time, by region of countries involved (one or both parties)

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.
Note: As this graph displays social security agreements that are still actively implemented, many early Europe-Europe agreements are not shown because these matters are now governed by EU regulations. 

Currently, 123 countries and territories worldwide (61 per cent) have at least one active bilateral agreement. As shown in Figure 2, the number of countries and territories involved in bilateral agreements has grown over time, though there is a marked slowdown in the last 10 years. This may seem at odds with the continuing growth in the number of agreements, but can be explained by the fact that agreements tend to be focused within the same group of countries. This can be seen as a manifestation of the polarization between countries that have agreements and those that do not. Europe is an outlier in this respect, because within the region, almost all countries (95 per cent) are involved in at least one bilateral agreement.

Figure 2. Total number of countries involved in bilateral agreements over time, by region

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.
Note: The total number of countries and territories considered for this analysis was 203 worldwide, including 57 for Europe (see footnote above); 51 for Asia-Pacific; 54 for Africa; and 41 for the America.

The number of countries and territories involved in multilateral agreements has also grown over time (Figure 3). Currently 98 countries and territories worldwide (48 per cent) have at least one active multilateral agreement, with 77 per cent  of European countries party to an agreement. Considering bilateral and multilateral agreements together, we see that 74 per cent  of countries worldwide have at least one bilateral or multilateral agreement, with 100 per cent  of countries in Europe involved in an agreement. Regional trends are consistent across agreement type, with Europe most likely to have an agreement, followed by the Americas, Africa and Asia and the Pacific.

Figure 3. Percentage of countries or territories involved in an agreement, by region and agreement type

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.

Bilateral agreements involving European countries

Region of contracting countries

Until 1965, bilateral social security agreements in Europe were only intraregional (see Figure 4). Interregional agreements have gradually increased since the 1970s. Agreements with African and American countries grew at a similar rate in the 1970s and early 80s and each represented roughly 20 per cent of bilateral agreements by 1985. However, since then, the number of agreements with African countries has not kept pace with new agreements with countries from the Americas and Asia and the Pacific which has gradually increased since 1995. Currently, agreements in Europe are 40 per cent intraregional, while the interregional agreements are with countries from the Americas (28 per cent), Asia and the Pacific (22 per cent), and Africa (11 per cent). The development of social security systems, labour and migration flows, distribution of employers across countries, as well as political considerations all play a role in the establishment of social security agreements.

Figure 4. Number of bilateral agreements involving European countries, by region of other contracting country

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.

Facilitated access to benefits

One of the main functions of social security agreements is to facilitate access to benefits, either through maintenance of rights in the course of acquisition (also known as totalisation) or through other means (ILO, ISSA, ITC, 2021). Such provisions allow for the accumulation of qualifying periods under different national social security schemes in order to aggregate the qualifying periods (either insurance, employment or residence), maintain or recover rights and share the costs of benefits paid (ILO, ISSA, ITC, 2021).

Almost all bilateral agreements involving European countries provide for facilitated access to benefits (96 per cent), though this is slightly less common for agreements with countries from Asia and the Pacific (89 per cent) (see Figure 5). Agreements with countries from all regions are more likely to provide for facilitated access to pensions (95 per cent of all agreements) than other benefits. This is due to the long qualifying periods for old age, disability and survivors’ pensions which increases the need for facilitated access, alongside the fact that these branches are well-developed and long-standing components of social security systems. Europe-Europe and Europe-Africa agreements are most likely to facilitate access to other branches as well, with over 50 per cent of agreements covering other branches (except unemployment). Agreements with countries from the Americas and Asia-Pacific, by contrast, are much less likely to cover other branches, at less than a third of agreements.

Figure 5. Facilitated access by branch within bilateral agreements involving European countries, by region of other contracting country 

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.

Outside of pensions, the next most common branch for facilitated access is work injury with 56 per cent of all agreements, and it is present in almost all Europe-Europe and Europe-Africa agreements (85 per cent and 79 per cent respectively). Sickness and maternity are the next most common, with 48 per cent and 46 per cent, and are again much more prominent for Europe-Europe and Europe-Africa agreements. The least common branches for facilitated access are family, health care and unemployment, with 37 per cent, 31 per cent and 27 per cent of total agreements respectively. These figures are much lower for agreements with countries from the Americas and Asia-Pacific.

Figure 6. Third country facilitated access to benefits within bilateral agreements involving European countries, 2024, by region of other contracting country

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.

Some bilateral social security agreements aggregate periods from third countries as long as all contracting parties have concluded bilateral agreements with the third country. If only one has such an agreement, the third country clause may be applicable only to persons (nationals or insured persons) covered by the agreement with the third country (ILO, 2012). Facilitated access to benefits for third countries exists in roughly a third of agreements (36 per cent), it is significantly more common in Europe-Europe agreements (43 per cent) than in those with countries from Asia and the Pacific (25 per cent) (Figure 6). Over time more and more bilateral agreements involving European countries have included third country facilitated access to benefits, with over half (57 per cent) of those negotiated or re-negotiated since 2010 having such provisions (see Figure 7). It is important to note that the specifics of the “third country clause” can vary depending on the agreement and the countries involved.

Figure 7. Percent of agreements with a third country clause for third country totalization (bilateral agreements involving European countries)

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.

Posting of workers

Sometimes an employer in one country sends an employee to temporarily work in another country. Such employees are known as posted workers. While most countries require all persons employed in their territory to pay social security contributions, exemptions are often made for posted workers allowing them to continue to pay contributions to the posting country (where their employer normally operates) and be exempted from paying contributions in the country of posted employment. Obviously, such exceptions cannot go on indefinitely, and countries agree on defined periods of time for such posting, often setting an initial and maximum posting period.

In the European Union (EU), the rules for posted workers regarding social security are governed by the Posting of Workers Directive (PWD) and Regulation no. 883/2004 on the coordination of social security systems discussed below. Provisions on posting of employees are common in bilateral agreements involving European countries (89 per cent), with these most often seen in interregional agreements rather than intraregional ones (Figure 8). Posting provisions exist in 99 per cent of agreements with the Americas, 91 per cent with Asia and the Pacific and 88 per cent with Africa, compared to just 81 per cent of Europe-Europe agreements. There is a clear regional breakdown in period of exemptions, with agreements with countries from Asia and the Pacific and the Americas much more likely to have long total exemption periods of five years or more (70 and 52 per cent, respectively). Shorter exemption periods are more common in Europe-Europe and Africa-Europe agreements. More than half of the agreements for these regions allow for exemption periods of up to three years, with two years being the most common (35 per cent of Europe-Europe agreements and 25 per cent of Africa-Europe agreements).

Figure 8. Posting of employees within bilateral agreements involving European countries, total period of exemptions, by region of other contracting country 

Source: ISSA, Forthcoming.
Note: Roughly a third of bilateral agreements involving European countries (32%) specify a shorter initial exemption period for posted employees. Here we display the total posting period (including any extensions).

Many agreements also make provisions for the posting of the self-employed (Figure 9). Provisions regarding the self-employed are found in 32 per cent of agreements involving European countries (where similar provisions for employees are found in 89 per cent of agreements as noted above). For this group of workers, a two-year exemption period is most common in all regions except for Asia and the Pacific.

Figure 9. Posting of self-employed persons within bilateral agreements involving European countries, total period of exemptions, by region of other contracting country

Source: ISSA. Forthcoming.

Multilateral agreements involving European countries

European Union Regulations

The EU currently has the most comprehensive legal framework for multilateral social security coordination in the world, both in material and personal scope. The early and comprehensive development of social security coordination within the EU stems from its founding principle of free movement of persons and the protection of social security rights. That is to say that individuals exercising their right to free movement should not have their social security rights compromised. Social security coordination has been an important issue in the region since the early days of the European Economic Community, with the first regulation on this topic entering into force in January 1959 (Regulation ECC No. 3/1958). Currently, two legal acts are in force: the basic Regulation (EC) No. 883/2004 and the implementing Regulation (EC) No. 987/2009. They apply to all 27 EU member states as well as to Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway on the basis of the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement, to Switzerland on the basis of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons between Switzerland and the EU, and to United Kingdom (UK) nationals who had migrated before the end of the Brexit transition period (31 December 2020) based on the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. This makes them the coordination instruments with the highest number of contracting parties worldwide. EU regulations are unique as well in that they are binding acts and prevail over other multilaterals and national law (Nickless and Siedl, 2005), though countries of course remain free to determine who is insured under their legislation and the types and conditions of benefits offered (ILO, 2010, p. 1).

The EU regulations are very comprehensive, covering various aspects of labour mobility such as posting, seasonal work, frontier workers and commuting (see Table 1, below). The regulations protect not only workers but also individuals moving for other reasons, such as planned health care, holidays or retirement. The personal scope is quite extensive, including employees, self-employed persons, students, civil servants and non-active persons. This goes beyond most other multilateral and bilateral instruments that usually only cover economically active persons and their families.

The material scope of the regulations are broad, encompassing all nine branches of social security as outlined in the ILO Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102) and include some non-contributory benefits as well as contributory ones. The regulations explicitly cover pre-retirement benefits, paternity benefit, and death grants. Although they do not explicitly include long-term care, the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that, in some cases, long-term care can be treated as a sickness benefit for the purposes of coordination.

Other multilateral agreements involving European countries

Aside from the EU regulations, there are currently five other multilaterals in force that involve EU countries. First, the European Convention on Social Security overs Türkiye and seven EU member states (see Table 1 for list). It entered into force after three ratifications in 1977 and is open for ratification by any of the 46 Council of Europe member states. At the time it was signed, it was the most comprehensive coordination mechanism in existence, covering many branches (see Table 1), and with a wide personal scope (of employees, self-employed and non-active persons). Note the application of some provisions depends on complementary bilateral agreements.

The Nordic countries have also established a distinct Convention intended to complement EC regulations, particularly concerning social assistance and social services, further facilitating transfer of entitlements and individuals’ mobility. Since the UK's disaffiliation from the EU and the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement (WA), two multilateral agreements have been established: the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and EEA-UK Social Security Convention, which both provide for posting of workers and totalisation (in addition to a bilateral agreement between the UK and Switzerland). Finally, Portugal and Spain are party to the 2011 Ibero-American multilateral agreement which is unique worldwide in that it crosses regional divides (see table 1 for material scope). No other interregional multilateral is currently in force. Once in force, the Community of Portuguese-speaking countries (CPLP) convention, signed by nine countries, will also bridge regional divides.

Three agreements also exist among non-EU European countries, namely (1) the 1992 Pension agreement for citizens of the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) covering eight CIS countries, (2) the 1994 Agreement on work injury for citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States, in force in 10 countries (1995-1996), and (3) the 2019 Pension agreement for employees of the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union, which entered into force in five countries in 2021.

Table 1. Overview of multilateral agreements involving European countries
Agreement nameDate of entry into force [1]Countries implementing the agreementsPosting provisions (no. months)Branches covered for facilitated access to benefits
EmployeesSelf employedOld ageDisabilitySurvivorsWork injurySicknessMaternityHealthcareUnemploymentFamily
European convention on social security1977+812-24  
Pension agreement for citizens of the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States199282         
Agreement on work injury for citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States1995+10         
EU regulations (EC) no. 883/2004 and 987/200932010+3132424 
EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA)2021282424  
EEA-UK Social Security Convention202442424  
The Ibero-American multilateral agreement on social security2011+1312-2412      
Nordic social security convention20145   
Pension agreement for employees of the member states of the Eurasian economic union20215        

Source: ISSA. Forthcoming. International agreements database, 2024. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

Notes

  1. Often countries sign an agreement but do not yet apply it. This is the case of (a) Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, France and Moldova in regards to the European Convention on Social Security; (b) Moldova in regards to the CIS 1992 Pension agreement; (c) Georgia and Turkmenistan in regards to the CIS Agreement on work injury; (d) Costa Rica and Venezuela in regards to the Ibero-American agreement.
  2. Russia withdrew from the 1992 CIS Pension agreement in January 2023, but assigns and pays benefits for length of service acquired before this time.
  3. The EU Regulations apply to Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway on the basis of the EEA agreement (as from 1 June 2012, Regulations 883/2004 and 987/2009 apply, and as from 2 February 2013 Regulation 465/2012 applies), and to Switzerland on the basis of the agreement on the Free Movement of Persons between Switzerland and the EU (as from 1 April 2012, Regulations 883/2004 and 987/2009 apply).

Final remarks

The number of countries involved in bilateral and multilateral agreements has risen sharply over the past 60 years. Currently, all European countries and territories are involved in at least one international social security agreement and are party to 84 per cent of the bilateral agreements in force worldwide. In the past, many of these agreements were intraregional, but more and more bilateral agreements are interregional, especially since the EC regulations have taken the role of managing much of the intraregional coordination.

Facilitated access to benefits is a major component of international agreements involving European countries. All multilateral and almost all bilateral agreements (96 per cent) involving European countries provide this provision. Facilitated access is most common for pensions (at 95 per cent of bilaterals and 100 per cent of multilaterals), followed by work injury (56 per cent of bilaterals and 57 per cent of multilaterals). Clear regional differences emerge, with Europe-Europe and Europe-Africa agreements more likely to cover work-injury and short-term benefits.

There is a growing trend to incorporate provisions related to third country facilitated access to benefits in agreements. While this clause is present in a third of agreements involving European countries (36 per cent), over half of those negotiated or re-negotiated since 2010 (57 per cent) have such provisions.

Within bilateral agreements involving European countries, provisions related to the posting of workers is slightly less common than facilitated access (at 89 per cent compared to 96 per cent), That said, there are again clear regional differences, with posting provisions in 99 per cent of agreements with the Americas, 91 per cent of those with Asia and the Pacific and 88 per cent of those with Africa, compared to just 81 per cent of Europe-Europe agreements. In addition, agreements between Europe and Asia and the Pacific, and Europe and the Americas tend to have longer exemption periods, often with the initial exemption at five years or more. Most Europe-Europe agreements have an exemption period of two years, while Africa-Europe agreements have three years or less.

The growth and comprehensiveness of social security agreements is significant as it represents a growing recognition of the contribution and rights of migrant workers. In the face of growing labour migration, social security agreements represent a key legal instrument to enhance the portability of social rights.

The guide Extending social protection to migrant workers, refugees and their families (ILO, ISSA, ITC, 2021) aims to support institutions in strengthening their capacity to effectively cover mobile workers. More recently, the International Social Security Review published a special issue “To leave no one behind: Social security coverage for displaced populations and migrant workers” (International Social Security Review, 2023).

To fully ensure that these agreements are effective, they need to be efficiently implemented with coordination between various organizations of contracting countries. An important part of the implementation is related to the communication between the different parties via their liaison agencies. Recently, there have been great efforts to shift from paper-based to electronic exchanges, which allow these institutions to exchange information instantaneously, reducing the time spent on manual data entry and paper handling, and also reducing possible errors and fraud.  These new electronic exchanges also enhance data security and privacy, enabling social security institutions to better serve the public in a timely and efficient manner.

The ISSA aims to support member institutions in their efforts to effectively manage and implement an increasing number of agreements through the ISSA Working Group on International Social Security Agreements Implementation and Data Exchange. The group is focused on helping build a shared standardized technology-based solution for international data exchange that could improve effectiveness and efficiency in implementing international social security agreements.

References

Benton et al. 2024. The state of global mobility in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Geneva, International Organization for Migration.

European Parliament. 2024. Free movement of workers (Fact Sheets on the European Union). Strasbourg.

EuroStat. 2024. Migration and migrant population statistics (Statistics explained). Luxembourg.

ILO. 2010. Coordination of social security systems in the European Union: An explanatory report on EC Regulation No 883/2004 and its Implementing Regulation No 987/2009. Budapest, International Labour Organisation, Decent Work Technical Support Team and Country Office for Central and Eastern Europe.

ILO. 2012. Social security coordination for non-EU countries in South and Eastern Europe: A legal analysis. Budapest, International Labour Organisation, Decent Work Technical Support Team and Country Office for Central and Eastern Europe.

ILO. 2020. ILO global estimates on international migrant workers. Results and methodology. Geneva, International Labour Office.

ILO, ISSA, ITC. 2021. Extending social protection to migrant workers, refugees and their families: A guide for policymakers and practitioners. Geneva, International Labour Office.

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ISSA. Forthcoming. International agreements database. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

International Social Security Review. 2023. ”Special issue: To leave no one behind: Social security coverage for displaced populations and migrant workers”. Vol. 76, No. 4.

Kazi-Aoul, S. et al. 2023 ”Extending coverage to migrant workers to advance universal social protection”, in International Social Security Review, Vol. 76. No. 4.

Nickless, J.; Siedl, H. 2005. Co-ordination of social security in the Council of Europe: Short guide. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.