Gulf Times
May 1, 2006

BRUSSELS: A majority of older EU states have decided to open their doors to workers from newer east European members and will be lifting or easing their restrictions, the EU’s executive commission said yesterday.

The EU’s 15 older member states are supposed to tell Brussels before Sunday of their plans for restrictions on workers from eastern European countries that joined the bloc in its May 2004 “big bang” enlargement.

At that time, most “Old Europe” governments kept their doors shut to potential cheap labour from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia since 2004.

Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden threw open their doors to workers from the new members while the other required work permits, which were sometimes handed out on the basis of quotas.

But as of Friday, the European Commission said that three other countries -Finland, Portugal and Spain – had also decided to lift their restrictions.

Meanwhile, four others – Belgium, France, Italy and Luxembourg — had decided to ease their restrictions on eastern European workers.

Of the 15 older EU members, only Austria and Germany had notified plans to stick to their existing restrictions.

Denmark and Greece had still not notified where they stand although Copenhagen was also expected to maintain its restrictions.

The Netherlands has backtracked from initial plans to lift restrictions and instead will keep them in place until the end of the year, when the Dutch parliament will review the country’s position.

Countries that have not notified the commission of their plans by Sunday April 30 will have to automatically lift restrictions.

The European Commission, which has long encouraged member states to welcome workers from their eastern neighbours, voiced satisfaction that restrictions were being lifted or eased but also said that more could be done.

“Overall it is satisfactory but we hope that there will be further improvement between now and 2009,” commission spokeswoman for social issues Katharina von Schnurbein told journalists.

“It is really good news that three countries are lifting the restrictions and almost all the other countries have lifted some restrictions either in some sectors or they are going to be gradually lifting their restrictions up until 2009,” she said.

All restrictions, which do not apply to Cyprus and Malta, are supposed to be phased out over a seven-year period and the first of three phases is due to end on April 30.

EU states are normally not allowed to discriminate against workers on the basis of nationality within the bloc.

But the restrictions were included in the terms for the new countries joining the EU because of concerns in some older member states about a potential flux of eastern workers happy with lower wages and taking jobs from locals.

Those fears crystallized in some older member states such as France around the stereotype of the “Polish plumber” who it was feared would ruthlessly undercut local rivals.

But the European Commission argues that evidence from Britain, Ireland and Sweden does not bear such fears out and that letting eastern workers in can even have beneficial effects for the host country’s economy.