30th Mar 2023

Brussels urges old Europe to let in new workers

The European Commission will today adopt a report listing economic arguments against restrictions to labour by most old EU member states for workers from central and eastern Europe.

Twelve European countries, except for the UK, Ireland and Sweden, introduced special arrangements before the eight new states, plus Cyprus and Malta, joined the union in 2004.

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But social policy commissioner Vladimir Spidla argues that concerns over a potential inflow of new workers from the east, taking jobs away from western workers and applying for generous social benefits, have not materialised.

Instead, he urges member states "not only to take due account of the statistical evidence but also address an overall positive message to their citizens as to the prospects of free movement across the European Union."

According to the report to be handed over to EU leaders at a March summit, mobility flows between old and new Europe have been "very limited" and "simply not large enough to affect the EU labour market."

The number of residents from new member states has significantly increased only in the UK, Ireland, and Austria.

In other countries, the figures correspond to pre-enlargement numbers of central and east Europeans living and working there.

Germany issued around 500,000 work permits to EU newcomers between 2004 and 2005 (0.9% of the country's working age population), Austria 70,000 (1.2%), Italy about 50,000 (0.1%), the Netherlands over 20,000 (0.2%) and other "old" EU member states below or slightly over 10,000.

Within the three countries that embraced new workers without restrictions, the UK registered around 200,000 job-seekers, Ireland over 150,000 while Sweden issued 3,500 residence permits in 2004.

"The migration flows following the enlargement have had positive effects on the economies of the EU15 member states," says the report.

Newcomers "positively contribute to the overall labour market performance, to sustained economic growth and to better public finances."

Black market risk

On the other hand, labour restrictions in some countries may have encouraged an "exceptionally high influx of posted workers or workers claiming to be self-employed" from the east, the document indicates.

It also stressed "restrictions on labour market access may exacerbate resort to undeclared work," which could be undesirable for both undeclared and regulated workers.

Migrants from central and eastern Europe did not "crowd out national workers," according to the report, and filled up vacancies in hotels, restarurants, transport and mainly in the construction sector where their number is double that of EU15 employees.

Also, the commission points out that fears expressed in the UK about possible expoitation of social benefits by Poles or Lithuanians have also not materialised, as there have been only about 45 cases of benefit claims in Britain, out of 200,000 registered workers.

Overseas migrants a bigger challenge

Brussels also argues that "immigration from non-EU countries is a much more important phenomenon" than the work mobility within the union.

Most "old" EU member states which intend to retain the labour barriers until 2011, including Germany and Austria, host far more economic immigrants from third countries than from the bloc’s new member states.

Under a law that came into force earlier this year, the non-EU nationals living and working in the union for more than five years have full acess to its labour market while new EU citizens are debarred from it.

What comes next?

Spanish finance minister Pedro Solbes yesterday said his government would not extend the restrictions it imposed on hiring workers from central and eastern Europe.

Portugal, Finland and Greece are expected to follow the same path, while most other countries have hinted they will retain the barriers for another three years but possibly with higher quotas assigned for newcomers.

Old member states can only keep the restrictions until 2011, while the next two-year extension – to be decided in 2009 – has to be well supported by evidence that any restrictions are truly essential.

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