IN RESPONSE to the instincts of European Union member countries to shield their labour markets prior to the robust EU enlargement coming on May 1, Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan said that fears of Slovak labour invading other European markets were unfounded.
Kukan requested that ambassadors of EU member countries to Slovakia inform their governments that Slovakia would consider the introduction of any further transitional labour periods for the 10 new member countries unfair.
"The Slovak government wants to solve the problems by creating jobs at home," Kukan said, adding that foreign investment helps in this process.
The EU accession treaty with the 10 acceding countries enables current EU members to apply a two-year transition period during which citizens of the new member countries cannot access the labour markets of the old members. In special cases, transition periods could stretch up to seven years in total.
The states' final decisions will be known before May 1, at which point all have to notify the European Commission of whether they plan to take advantage of the transitional period related to the free movement of workers.
According to Kukan, mainly those EU-member countries that are due to hold a general election in the near future have opened up the issue of protecting their labour markets, which has resonated in political campaigns.
"Some ambassadors confirmed that the discussion was influenced by the domestic policy situation of their particular countries," Kukan told the news wire TASR.
Slovakia's representative to the European Commission and the former chief negotiator for the country's entry to the EU, Ján Figeľ, also maintains that Slovakia has never been and never will be a threat to the union's labour markets.
"Protectionist measures are, in my opinion, not driven chiefly by economic motives, because it is evident that Western economies need reinvigoration, need to be more competitive. That cannot be achieved by isolation. These measures are mainly supported by labour unions, some political parties, and the public more in reaction to negative anticipation and fear of enlargement," said Figeľ in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
"Many people already work abroad, and in some cases they work illegally. Administrative barriers will be a burden for Europe, won't help the economy, and will create more room for illegal labour," Figeľ added.
Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Finland have officially reported on the protective measures they plan to introduce.
Germany and Austria, which fear the influx of cheap labour from their eastern European neighbours, are the most likely to ask for a seven-year transition period.
Ireland and Great Britain have assured Bratislava that they will not apply the seven-year transition period to Slovakia, Kukan told the financial daily Hospodárske noviny.
However, the foreign affairs minister said that the compromise is only being born laboriously.
Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands have expressed a willingness to liberalise their labour markets.
"I'm confident there will be positive examples, such as Ireland, Denmark, and Great Britain. Sweden is reconsidering its open policy, Holland is putting quotas in place. Greece and Italy have not decided yet. Other countries will most likely opt for the two-year transitional period," Figeľ told The Slovak Spectator.
"It is becoming evident that there is less political will than a couple of years ago. Neither the governments of these countries nor the political or economic circumstances have undergone significant events that would justify a change in attitude," he added.
Slovak Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník does not think that EU member countries have any serious reason to introduce transition periods.
"Slovaks are not greatly interested in migration for work even inside the country, so we do not expect them to travel to remote destinations," he told TASR.
In early February, the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, and Family suggested that Slovakia should hold on to its right to adopt measures similar to other EU countries in restricting access to its labour market.
However, Slovakia can still handle the transition periods for free movement of labour through bilateral employment agreements. In the past, the country concluded mutual employment agreements with Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. Of the accessing countries, similar agreements have been signed with the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, the news wire SITA reported.
Germany annually lets in 1,000 Slovak workers. Luxembourg is willing to employ 20 Slovaks regardless of the condition of its labour market.
In the Czech Republic, Slovak citizens can work without a work permit.
According to SITA, on July 30, 2003, there were 56,869 Slovaks working in the Czech Republic and 2,125 Czechs working in Slovakia based on a mutual labour treaty.
Hungary has been increasing the number of jobs set for Slovaks. Last year, the southern neighbour opened 2,000 spots for citizens of Slovakia and more were welcome to take up seasonal jobs. The quota has not been fully used for a long time and Hungary does not plan to introduce protective measures against any of the future EU members.
Experts say that even if opening up labour markets brings along an influx of labour from new EU members, the principle of solidarity should shine through all the initial problems.
"I want to emphasise that enlargement brings many questions, even for the current EU 15, but it should be seen as an answer to problems, not as an additional problem in itself. There is no better answer to the economic, social, and political challenges on the European continent than enlargement. But it also requires a certain degree of solidarity and vision," Figeľ said.
"I think EU integration is a part of the solution to our problems. It is true here, as it is elsewhere, that there's no place like home. We should create a European perspective at home. We need to draw investment to Slovakia, to create conditions for the development of services and tourism. If we make others want to come here, it will be a clear sign for those who doubt us from abroad, " he added.
16. Feb 2004 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová and Lukáš Fila