The stresses and pleasures of a Eurocommuting life

More and more Britons are crossing borders to get to work, writes Thea Jourdan
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The Independent Online

Commuting no longer has to mean catching the 8.02 from Woking to Waterloo or queuing in jams on the M62. A new breed of worker is prepared to cross international borders to get to the office.

Commuting no longer has to mean catching the 8.02 from Woking to Waterloo or queuing in jams on the M62. A new breed of worker is prepared to cross international borders to get to the office.

Every Monday morning, thousands of UK citizens congregate at the Eurostar terminal in London to catch trains to Brussels, Paris, Lille - or even further afield. The journey from London to Paris takes two hours and 20 minutes, and a return ticket costs from £199. A similar scene unfolds at international airports up and down the country. Come Friday evening, the same faces return to spend the weekend at home with friends and family.

Tim Harrison, a senior economist at data analysts Alphametrics, has monitored the rise of Eurocommuting over the last 10 years. "It has become a genuine phenomenon and the numbers are slowly creeping up," he says.

Back in 1996, commuting abroad was undertaken by 0.2 per cent of UK workers, a figure that has risen steadily each year until it reached 0.26 per cent in 2002, or 73,000 people. (EU Labour Force Survey). Numbers in other European countries are far higher. In Belgium, 2.33 per cent of its workforce commute to other EU member states and 1.5 per cent of French workers commute across borders on a daily or weekly basis.

So why is Eurocommuting gaining popularity? The ideal of free movement of workers, enshrined in the European treaties, means that wage earners are able to make a living outside their home state. The enlargement of the European Union earlier this month gave nationals of the 10 new member states the right to move relatively freely around the EU. Multinational companies, with a keen eye on the bottom line, often require their staff to transport their skills to where they are needed.

Commuting can be a better option than full-scale migration, and fits emerging working patterns. International assignments tend to last between three and 12 months. Long-term postings are rare and 75 per cent of workers leave their families behind. Evidence suggests that many more men are involved in long-haul commuting than women, perhaps because men predominate in the key sectors of finance, IT and telecoms.

According to Carolyn Nimmy, director of global people relationship management at IT consultants Capgemini: "The traditional expatriate assignment is almost dead - except for a small number of very senior or experienced individuals where their expertise is necessary in a different country. The trend is to employ people locally, or bring in daily or weekly commuters. This makes more business sense and enables the assembly of mixed teams."

Commuting long distances is now a viable option. "Excellent transport links at low prices mean that it has never been easier to commute abroad," says Mr Harrison. "Nipping across borders can make financial sense." The emergence of the budget flight business, spearheaded by Go, easyJet, and Ryanair, has fuelled this trend. Some advance fares are lower than a tube ticket. Eurostar has a frequent traveller club which offers points and incentives to commuters, just like airline points for frequent fliers. Numbers of passengers on Eurostar rose by 19 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and the company now has a 66 per cent share of all business passengers who travel regularly between Paris and London.

Time spent travelling is not a major disincentive for British workers, who already face the longest commute in the EU - an average of 45 minutes a day. The high-speed rail link to Brussels will soon mean London-based commuters can reach the city in two hours. Commuting can be productive time, with trains and planes offering business lounges, internet connections and powerpoints for laptops. A recent European study found that many people enjoyed commuting and accepted it as a part of modern life. The distinctions between work, travel and pleasure have been blurred.

Commuting can be cheaper and more convenient than full-scale migration, for companies and employees. "Relocation entails more than simply packing the furniture and moving family and pets to another home," says Thibaut Mantaux, CEO of Settler International, a Brussels-based relocation agency which relocates 9,000 families a year. His company takes a fee of about €2,000 (£1,100) to €3,000 to relocate a family in Europe. The full cost of the move to the employer is far more, between €8,000-16,000 per family.

The worker has the challenges and rewards of a new job, but family members may face cultural isolation and unwanted upheaval. A working spouse may have to give up a job back home, and sacrifice an important second income. Mr Mantaux explains: "For the family, it means leaving behind school, neighbours and friends and adapting to another culture and social scene." Parents may also not want to disrupt their children's schooling. "Parents want their children's education to haveas much stability and continuity as possible."

The high ratio of owner-occupiers in the UK may be one other factor behind British workers' decision to commute. "It is a real drawback if you own your own home and you want to move. It is much easier to move around if you rent a place instead," says Mr Harrison. Once you have sold up, it may be difficult to re-enter the volatile housing market. Some forecasters predict a 20 per cent rise in UK house prices this year.

Many companies have introduced policies to encourage Eurocommuting. Telecommunications giant Alcatel has a policy to enable managers assigned to European countries to keep their home base and return to their families regularly. Capgemini has global guidelines in place to assist employees who want to keep a base in one country and work in another. "When employees are happy in their personal life, they are more productive," says Ms Nimmy. "Employers are happy to consider flexible economically viable arrangements which do not interfere with efficiency."

Capgemini consultants are given an option to work a three-four-five week. This translates to three nights away, four days at the client's site and a fifth day in the home office. Technology means it is easy to stay in touch. "Employees carry mobile phones and computers and have constant access to e-mails," says Ms Nimmy. "You no longer have to be in the office to stay connected."

Ms Nimmy has commuted from her home in Spain to London for seven years, and now commutes to London from her new base in Cologne, Germany. Commuting goes both ways. A growing number of British workers live abroad, taking advantage of cheaper housing, and better public healthcare and schools in their host country.

Kent Council, under pressure to build new affordable housing in the south-east, has been exploring the possibility of encouraging people to move to low-cost housing areas in northern France and commute to England via the fast rail link through the Chunnel. The under-populated "Jardin de France" could soon be home to thousands of British families, with wage-earners commuting back to this country.

Ms Nimmy, 50, regards her cross-border lifestyle as a positive plus, although she admits that week days spent apart can put strains on personal relationships. "There are extra pressures that come with travelling a lot and distance," she says. "It does mean that you have to learn to compromise."

Alan Strutt, corporate communications editor at Management Centre Europe, which trains 15,000 managers every year, believes that more companies should offer counselling, as well as practical assistance, when employees decide to commute. "It seems to us that many companies fail to prepare their employees sufficiently," says Mr Strutt. "There should be a package that goes beyond language and cultural training. Employees need to be able to cope with a range of emotional issues that come with distance and separation."

Eurocommuting seems to work best when it is a short-term option. "Something that is fun and exciting to start with may become a chore if it drags on and on," says Mr Strutt.

Gurmeet Jaggee, 42, who runs his own IT consultancy, gave up the life of a Eurocommuter after the birth of his son, Dominic, now four. "Dominic would point at the telephone and say 'Daddy'. There was no competition really. I had to taper off my foreign assignments for the sake of my family life." His wife, Helen, is relieved too. "She knows that I have to go where the work is. That said, we sat down and decided that we could manage on less income and have a happier life if I lived at home full-time."

Mr Jaggee will still be pitching for lucrative international contracts, but in future the whole family will stick together.

'It was very stressful trying to keep things going in two places'

Stephen Jones, 38, is a vice-president at Deutsche Bank and lives in London. He was an Eurocommuter for four years for a data-processing company, ADP, based in Sussex.

"I never expected to be a Eurocommuter. When I joined ADP as an IT consultant, I thought I was going to be living full-time in the UK. But then the company started getting lots of contracts abroad and I had to do a lot of travelling. On Monday morning, I would be flying to Luxembourg, on Wednesday it would be Paris. Then a contract came up and I needed to be in Paris for several weeks.

"It was my first experience of living out of a suitcase. I ended up staying in Paris for eight months and commuting back to my home in London every weekend. The company paid for me to have an apartment in Paris, but I wanted to go home on a regular basis. I had a partner in London and all my friends and family were there. I also have an identical twin brother, John, and we are quite close.

"I really enjoyed Eurocommuting because I loved Paris and I had a fantastic time there. That said, my relationship in London broke up because of the strain of the travelling. My friends started drifting away too. There are only so many special events that can take place on the weekend.

"After Paris, I was sent to Belgium and then Luxembourg. I commuted between Luxembourg and London for three years. It was supposed to be three months but it stretched on and on. I stayed in a hotel for six months and then I got my own apartment.

"I did start to feel that I was not in control of my own life. It was stressful trying to keep things going in two places at once. Every Friday, I would be travelling for six to eight hours just to get home, and then the same again on Monday. I still had to make up the lost hours in my working week.

"I don't think that Eurocommuting is a long-term option. I managed to do it for nearly four years but it did have repercussions on my private life. I was so exhausted when I got home at weekends that all I wanted to do was chill out. I don't think I was that much fun to be with. I also had problems with my tax status because I was away from home for so long.

"By the end of my stint as an Eurocommuter, I was begging them to bring me back to England. I was completely fed up.

"When I got my job with Deutsche Bank, I told them that I wanted to be based in London full-time and they agreed. I wouldn't do Eurocommuting again because it uses up too much of my personal time.

"I might be tempted to move abroad for an interesting long-term position, but in that case I would make a complete break with the UK."

THE COMPLICATIONS

* Tax: There are numerous tax treaties in place between countries in the EU, but as yet there is no standard taxation. As a general rule, you pay income tax in the country of your main residence. If a company pays you locally, you may be taxed at source in that country. You may also have to pay a range of local taxes, such as environment tax and road tax. You should never have to pay the same tax twice.

Anyone who is going to live abroad and has inquiries about income or capital gains tax can call the Inland Revenue on 0845 0700040, or check their website www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk.

* Paperwork: Work permits are no longer required to work anywhere in the EU. You may also have to register with your local authority, depending on the country.

* Healthcare: UK citizens are entitled to basic healthcare in other EU countries. The E111 is the standard form which you will need to show to gain access to medical treatment. There are plans to introduce an EU-wide medical ID card or smart card. Business travellers who want to cover themselves for private healthcare can buy multi-trip annual travel. insurance. This should cover repatriation expenses. Trailfinders offers a multi-trip annual package for £109 plus a business supplement of £17.50. Visit www.trailfinder.com.

* Check rules in the country where you are working. For example, if you are employed by a Belgian company, 4.7 per cent of your gross income will be deducted to pay into one of the country's private health insurance funds.

* Cross-cultural training: Cultural awareness can help ease you into the life of a Eurocommuter. Basic language skills are also helpful. Contact cultural integration specialists Eaton Consulting Group, www.eatonconsultinggroup.com.

* Accommodation: Prices vary from country to country and city to city. It is always cheaper to rent an apartment than stay in a hotel. Average one-bedroom furnished apartments in Belgium rent for €1,400-1,600 a month. Unfurnished apartments go from €650-743 per month. www.settler-international.com.

* Transport costs: These depend on the number of times you commute within a week or month. Eurostar London to Paris starts at £199 for a seven-day advance purchase ticket. London to Brussels costs from £199. A one-day advance first-class ticket costs £299. www.eurostar.com.

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