Old Europe dropping opposition to new EU workers

Lucia Kubosova
April 30, 2008

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – Germany and Austria are likely to remain among the last “old” EU member states to apply next year for an extension of the temporary provision to ban workers from central and eastern Europe, five years after their entry in the bloc on 1 May 2004.

The restrictions against jobseekers from eight post-communist states are still currently deployed by Germany, Austria, Denmark, France and Belgium. In 2006, the five countries made use of the option of prolonging the original labour market constraints by three more years.

In most of these countries, talks are under way about their next move as the European Commission will require a clear explanation to justify any request to extend barriers up to the last possible moment: until 2011.

“If they want to prolong these measures, they have to say why and give us concrete reasons and facts supporting such a demand, although it is not specified what kind of facts exactly,” the commission’s spokeswoman on social policy Katharina von Schnurbein told EUobserver.

Germany and Austria seem most likely to make such a move. In Berlin, coalition talks on the issue have not been finalised, but “there is a clear tendency toward extending” the ban, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour noted.

“There is no way for the EU to prevent Germany from taking this measure,” she added, pointing out that under the coalition deal between the ruling Christian democrats and Social Democrats, the ban can be lifted only if the country’s labour market develops well.

The biggest EU economy recorded an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent this March but also labour shortages in some sectors. Berlin has so far relaxed the restrictions only for high-qualified engineers from the new countries.

In Austria, the government has suggested work barriers may be lifted only for skilled workers and graduates, and here too, such a move depends on the country’s labour market situation. This March, Vienna recorded the fourth lowest unemployment rate in the EU – 4.1 percent.

Belgium to open its gates?
Belgium could be the first of the late-comers to drop the labour barriers, although the move will come some time after 1 May, the date that had earlier been suggested by the previous interior minister in the provisional government.

“The [current] coalition partners have still not agreed on the issue, although they are debating the possibility of dropping the restrictions as of 1 July or 1 September,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Asylum told EUobserver.

The move is being pushed mainly by Flemish liberal parties, as the Dutch-speaking Flanders region currently records an unemployment rate of around five percent. It is however opposed by social-democrats mainly from the French-speaking Wallonia region with 12 percent of the unemployed.

“Some politicians in Belgium find it unusual that our country is among the last to apply EU rules and there is an increasing feeling that it should be changed,” one Belgian official commented.

France is also considering whether to lift work barriers in the sectors where they are still applied after having already allowed jobseekers from the new countries to apply for around 40 types of jobs in the country.

“Towards the end of the year, there will be a separate evaluation of the development of every sector and then a decision about the limits on new workers for each of them,” said a spokesperson for the French embassy to the EU.

Finally, Denmark still applies partial restrictions for some sectors, and the country’s government has yet to decide whether it will maintain such a position or drop the barriers completely next year. This February, Denmark’s unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, the second lowest after the Netherlands.

Britain a temporary home
Meanwhile, a report published on Wednesday (30 April) shows that half of around one million migrants from central and eastern Europe who have arrived in the UK since 2004 have already returned home.

The study, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, also suggests that the number of migrants from the new EU countries arriving in the UK has started to slow down, with 17 percent fewer worker registrations in the second half of 2007 than during the same period in 2006.

Britain was one of three countries – along with Ireland and Sweden – that did not impose any burdens at all against migrant workers from the very first day of the entry of their countries to the EU, although it did introduce some bans against workers from the 2007 newcomers, Bulgaria and Romania.

“Four in 10 of the returned Polish migrants we surveyed think that better employment prospects in Poland will encourage Poles living in the UK to return to Poland for good,” the IPPR report said.

© EUobserver.com 2008