20th Jan 2022

Romania and Bulgaria workers test eastern European solidarity

Many new member states intend to open labour markets to Romanian and Bulgarian workers after they join the EU, but with Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia still undecided, the spirit of eastern European solidarity is showing signs of strain.

Estonia is so far the only ex-Soviet EU member to officially say it will open its doors, but diplomatic sources told EUobserver that Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech republic are also preparing to let in new workers from day one.

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  • Romania: life in the Romanian and Bulgarian countryside is tough by European standards (Photo: European Commission)

The official approvals are set to be published toward the end of the year, with Romanian and Bulgarian accession on the cards for 1 January 2007 after the European Commission gave its green light on Tuesday (26 September).

"We haven't foreseen any restrictions," a Latvian diplomat stated. "We are among those member states who believe there should be equal treatment for everybody in the EU without any sort of discrimination."

A Polish contact said Warsaw feels "a moral obligation" to open up, with Polish unemployment standing at 15 percent but with some labour shortages appearing as skilled Polish workers flock west to the UK and Ireland.

Romania and Bulgaria share a common history with the EU's eastern European states, splitting from the Soviet Union in partially-peaceful revolutions 17 years ago but continuing to suffer from a legacy of economic stagnation after 1945.

Average wages in the two countries - which together number 30 million people - stand between €160 and €195 a month, while some people in Bulgaria earn just €60 a month.

Solidarity has limits

But despite the natural affinity, some of the EU's biggest post-Soviet states - Hungary and Slovakia - are considering placing safeguards on their labour markets, while in the south, prosperous little Slovenia is saying nothing on the issue for now.

"Open borders are an old tradition in Hungary," Budapest's foreign ministry spokesman told EUobserver. "But in the eastern part of the country, on the border with Romania, there is very high unemployment so we must be very careful."

A Slovak diplomat said "we are still evaluating the possible impact of either kind of arrangement" after Slovakia's socialist prime minister Robert Fico in the past few months warned that Bratislava may have to introduce safeguards.

With the exception of Poland, Slovakia has the highest unemployment in the EU on 14 percent.

Under the terms of Romania and Bulgaria's EU accession treaties, existing EU member states can impose partial or complete labour blockades until 2014 at the latest, with any restrictions subject to review in 2010 and 2012.

Commission wary

For its part, the European Commission backs open doors under the "free movement of labour" principle with recent commission studies arguing that post-2004 east-to-west migration has boosted the bloc's economic growth.

But Brussels does not plan to put any pressure on member states in the tense pre-2007 enlargement climate, with EU constitution anxieties and illegal immigration from Africa doing nothing to lift the general mood.

"It's for the member states to decide. The commission is not interfering in this," a spokeswoman stated. "The political climate was also unfavourable before the last accession in 2004 - there were headlines everywhere about millions of people heading west."

EU15 closing doors

Out of the old EU15, Ireland and the UK signaled in the past two weeks they will impose some limitations on Romanian and Bulgarian workers, after already admitting over 500,000 eastern European EU workers since 2004.

But research cited in UK media suggests the Anglo-Irish and eastern European debates could be missing the point, with most Romanians and Bulgarians historically going to Spain, Italy or Greece and many of those keen to leave having already left.

"We don't have people left in Romania. We even have problems finding people to work for us here. They've already left," Romanian job agency manager Stelian Botagan told the BBC.

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