This claim has been made in several Dutch election programs for the upcoming European elections. The problem boils down to the definition of a profession, but we rate the claim as mostly false.
The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) claims (page 17) that ‘there are currently 5,000 regulated professions in Europe, from archivist to fireworks expert’, and uses the number as an argument for streamlining cross-border work: ‘This creates barriers for working and providing services abroad.’
50PLUS, another Dutch party, uses the same number for the same argument (chapter 3). ‘There are still 5,000 regulated professions in the EU. […] Every small business owner in Europe should be able to sell his goods on the internet to other EU-countries without administrative barriers.’ It’s notable that both ‘the EU’ and ‘Europe’ are used for the same statistic, although it is not uncommon for politicians to use both terms to address the European Union. Finally, democrat party D66 also mentions the importance of ‘reducing the number of regulated professions for non-residents’, but does not include a statistic.
What is a regulated profession?
Clearly, the topic of regulated professions is popular for the upcoming elections. But where does the statistic come from, and is it correct? To begin with, we need a clear definition of what a regulated profession is. The term is defined on this EU website as follows: ‘As a general rule, a profession is regulated if you have to hold a specific degree to access the profession, sit special exams such as state exams and/or register with a professional body before you can practice it.’ These rules are created by member states (not the EU) and differ across Europe, which could make it harder to practice a job in another country.
The European Commission itself uses more or less the same statistic in this letter (page 6) from January 2017 to the European Parliament about reforming job regulations. ‘At present, based on what Member States notified in the regulated professions database, there are over 5,500 regulated professions across the EU.’ The statistic is even a bit higher, and the EC refers to this database as a source. The database is publicly accessible and serves as guidance for people who wish to expand (or move) their work to another European country. The database is continuously updated by the member states themselves and at the time of writing holds 6,517 entries in total, and 5,810 across the EU.
The number is significantly higher than the claimed 5,000, but does not necessarily mean that there are 5,810 different regulated professions. It means that there are 5,810 different sets of rules for jobs across the EU, and because the regulations are added on a national level there is quite a lot of overlap. For instance, there are fourteen entries for ‘lawyer’. Those are not necessarily fourteen different professions, but regulations for lawyers in fourteen different countries.
What might inflate the statistic even more is the fact that a lot of professions have multiple entries in the same country because they are split in very specific subcategories. The aforementioned Commission letter acknowledges this, writing that ‘for each generic profession there are usually many more professions covered by the national terminology. This is because under each generic profession there are several sub-professions.’ For instance, the Netherlands has an entry for someone who does inspections on light vehicles, and someone who examines heavy vehicles. They are separately registered in the database, but we probably both call them a car mechanic.
That’s why the Commission publishes another database where the regulations are grouped by ‘generic names of professions’. This database has only 590 entries. For example, ‘air traffic controller‘ contains ten different entries in different countries (and languages). They might slightly differ on a national level and could therefore be seen as ten different professions (except the entry for air traffic controller instructor), or as one profession as a whole, so it depends on what constitutes a profession. And although the database gives a good indication, the statistic is not very reliable because, as the warning above the page states, ‘Member States are free to choose under which generic heading they insert their regulated professions’ and therefore the activities could overlap between different groups.
So what exactly is a profession? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ‘the people who do a particular type of work, considered as a group’ and ‘jobs that need special training and skill, such as being a doctor or lawyer’. With this definition, we might give the generic professions the benefit of the doubt, but the practitioners of the national sub-professions could be considered a group as well, so the answer remains unclear.
Even though the number of 5,000 regulated professions is widely used, it is an unreliable statistic because of the overlapping regulations between EU countries and the fact that member states themselves maintain the database, seemingly without much oversight. Furthermore, if we consider the generic names of professions to be closer to the definition of a profession, 590 seems to be more accurate. Both statistics are unreliable, but because the difference between the numbers is so large, we consider it unlikely that the number of regulated professions is actually 5,000. We rate the claim as mostly false.
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