Scientists need more Europe, not less

This month, we are celebrating the anniversary of Germany’s reunification. This event is very important to me, as it reminds me every year, together with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall in November, how lucky I am to be able to live the international scientist nomad life. Although this lifestyle with short term contracts has a lot of downsides, it is also a unique opportunity to work with various amazing people and follow your curiosity and ambition where it takes you.

I just moved back to the Netherlands (where I did my Master and PhD), after spending more than 3 years in Paris. While I did my undergrad in my home country Germany, I lived and studied in Portugal for a semester abroad. I don’t have to think much about visa trouble and being kicked out of a country when my contract ends and admin fails to provide a new one on time. A lot of red tape that is associated with moving around across international borders simply does not exist for me as a citizen of the European Union. In addition, the Euro makes life much easier, I can quite easily estimate costs of living, whether this flat is pricey and how far that salary will get me. And, very dry and boring but incredibly helpful: There are income tax agreements that make filing tax returns that much easier when having worked in two countries within the same fiscal year. I don’t run danger of being taxed twice and the authorities won’t come after me for hiding income abroad. I talked to someone who lived abroad (within Europe) before all those agreements and it turns out that a local finance student wrote a thesis about her tax situation…

In short, I consider myself incredibly lucky that Europe has removed so many administrative and practical hurdles. The latest being the fact that I can keep my mobile number and it’s actually cheaper to use my French phone than switching to a Dutch one. But it could be even better in a number of ways if Europe grew even closer together. For example, I always have to apply for a new tax/social security number. In France this took 13 months (all while paying into state social security, mind you). In the Netherlands, it was a bit easier, but because my case is confusing I had to jump through a few hoops and wait for a special consultant appointment (and of course there was some admin trouble because someone made a mistake, long story short: I was two people for about a week and spent a lot of time on the phone to rectify the situation and save my husband from [administrative] bigamy).

Another issue is banking. Wherever I move I absolutely have to open a new bank account, despite standardized European banking. It is free and no hassle at all to transfer money to a different European country, you don’t even need special account identification, it’s actually all the same now. But countries managed to keep their bank account IDs distinct, for example through length differences. It’s thus impossible for me to actually get a Dutch mobile number or give up my French bank account before all social security issues are sorted, among a host of things. To me that seems silly, and I realized just how silly it was when I got a new contract for electricity. The system of this very nice Dutch green energy company at first couldn’t handle my foreign bank account number, but with a small change in their system, all was well. Because I still cannot pay in most supermarkets with my foreign card, I gave up and tried to open a bank account, but that required either Dutch IDs (which I don’t have, obviously) or a Dutch bank account (which I was trying to open, as you might remember). Well, I did contact them and explained the situation and again, an exception was made and after a month back and forth (the exception wasn’t really taken well by their system it seems) I am proud owner of yet another bank account.

All this time and hassle was incredibly unnecessary. With more European thinking across the board, international moves would be a lot easier than they admittedly already are. And as a postdoc, such international move sometimes might happen every year, and it feels like a huge waste of time to spend so much energy on figuring out things that could be solved by everyone taking full advantage of  European standards or by documenting national differences even better.

While we cannot solve how companies and tax offices deal with European expats, there is one thing that we can do even on the department level, namely just tell newcomers what’s going on. The fact that even simple documentation is usually lacking astounds me. I am currently in the absolutely fantastic situation where I was provided with a lot of information for what I need to do when and how, but that’s not very common in my experience. When moving to France, for example, people were baffled that I did not have a social security number, because “you just have one”. Well, that’s the case when you are born French. I prowled websites of social security and the German embassy, scrolled through lots of blog posts, and tried to figure things out together with fellow expats in my new lab. If Europe in general and European academia in particular wants talented people to be able to move around freely and use their talents wherever they are needed, well, I’d suggest compiling comprehensive guidebooks of what admin issues will arise in different countries (and, in a perfect world, even provide assistance). Such guidelines could also offer a realistic estimate of the time one needs to invest in this side of being an international scientist.


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