Eight EU states cling to labour barriers

SPAIN, Portugal, Finland and Greece will join Great Britain, Ireland and Sweden in the club of countries that have erased another border separating the old from the new European Union members.

SPAIN, Portugal, Finland and Greece will join Great Britain, Ireland and Sweden in the club of countries that have erased another border separating the old from the new European Union members.

After May 1, citizens of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 will be able to seek work in these countries without the previous restrictions.

The European Parliament called on the original 15 EU countries to remove the locks on their labour markets in early April, and passed a report accenting the advantages of the free movement of labour.

According to the EU Accession Treaty, countries that fail to notify the European Commission that they intend to continue applying the restrictions will automatically have their labour markets opened.

Germany and Austria, anxious not to miss the deadline, have already announced that they will keep their labour markets locked for at least another three years.

While Greece and Luxembourg hesitated until the last moment, the Netherlands said that after May 1 it would keep most of its restrictions while lifting some. The country plans to lift all barriers as of January 1, 2007, while the Dutch parliament is asking for some safeguards.

While Belgium will not lift its restrictions either, the country is currently working on the simplification of the process of issuing work permits for certain professions.

France was also withholding its announcement to the very last moment, but was virtually certain not to throw open the gates to its labour market wider than necessary to allow in certain professions that the French economy needs.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in early April that the opening of the country's market would be controlled and gradual.

The experiences of the countries that have already opened their markets suggest that the disaster scenarios of massive labour movements to old EU countries were grossly exaggerated.

"Our experiences with an open labour policy have been positive," Barbro Elm, charge d'affaires of the Embassy of Sweden, told The Slovak Spectator.

"The experience of the Swedish labour market shows that the inflow of labour from the new member countries has been quite limited. Since the accession of the 10 new members in 2004, we have received about 10,000 applications for work permits in Sweden from these countries."

According to Elm, a recent study by the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies showed that the open labour policy had resulted in a smaller inflow of workers to Sweden than expected, but a higher than expected inflow to Ireland and the UK.

A report called "Freedom of Movement for Workers from Central and Eastern Europe: Experiences in Ireland and Sweden", which also covered Ireland, says that people from the Baltic States and Poland are the most frequent job seekers on the Swedish market, Elm added.

The report's results are very similar to a study that the European Commission released in February 2005, which concluded that the original EU members that had opened their labour markets to the free movement of workers from the 10 new members in 2004 had benefited from doing so.

"The report shows that contrary to expectations the open labour policy has had a positive effect on employment in both Sweden and Ireland," Elm said.

She added that immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe had picked up jobs in sectors where there is a shortage of labour, which in Sweden is the health sector, in Ireland the construction sector.

Language and cultural barriers along with family, social and property ties are keeping Eastern Europeans from a more massive migration.

While Italy has been cautious about opening its labour gates, it now wants to increase quotas for employing people from the new EU countries to 170,000 annually.

Experts say that by opening their labour markets, the old member states could reduce illegal labour and reduce the temptation of companies to move to other countries for cheaper labour.

Slovakia has also been trying to persuade the old EU countries that their fears of an influx of cheap labour are not justified, and that the advantages are incomparable greater than any disadvantages.

The Slovak Foreign Ministry says that opening up the EU's labour markets would encourage a greater sense of European citizenship.

"The restrictions imposed on the freedom of movement of workers question the coherence of European citizenship and threaten to create a division between 'first' and 'second' class EU citizens," reads a document provided by the Foreign Ministry to The Slovak Spectator.

"They also have a broader political impact. [The new EU member] countries have been aligning their economies and legal systems to the requirements of EU membership for more than 15 years. By imposing restrictions on the freedom of movement, the old member states risk creating further divisions within the EU and provide a new ground for already rising Euro-scepticism in both old and new member states," says the report.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the free movement of workers benefits the economy overall, while there are few economic arguments that justify delaying access to labour markets for the new EU countries.

"Quite the contrary, the countries that took the decision to open their borders after May 2004 (Sweden, the UK, Ireland) benefited from immigration. Most of the workers from the new EU countries took up employment in "hard-to-fill" jobs and helped provide essential services in health care, agriculture and tourism," says the ministry document.

The ministry also argues that the greying of the EU population also demands the opening of the labour market.

EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Vladimír Špidla has been a strong advocate of opening labour markets EU-wide.

During his February visit to Bratislava he said that the EU could not build an integrated Europe with a single market without securing free movement of labour.

According to Špidla, there have been no massive migration waves because of the social-political situation in Central European countries.

"These are countries with a relatively high quality of life, while migration would present a considerable burden," Špidla said.

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