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28th May 2022

Brussels encourages EU states to open labour markets

Contrary to common widespread fears, the two EU enlargements of 2004 and 2007 have not led to a massive influx of central and eastern European workers to the "old" member states, according to a European Commission report to be released on Tuesday (18 November).

The number of workers from the countries that joined the EU in 2004 now living in the 15 "old" member states has only grown from 0.3 percent of their total population in 2003 to 0.5 percent by the end of 2007, with those workers mostly heading to Ireland and the UK.

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Meanwhile, the number of Bulgarian and Romanian workers has increased from 0.2 to 0.4 percent over the same period, with most of them opting for Italy and Spain as their destination.

In total, there are still more migrants from states outside the EU coming to work in the EU-15 countries than nationals from the countries that joined the bloc since 2004, according to the commission's data.

In addition to the size of intra-EU migration remaining relatively stable, the 'new' workers have not caused "serious disturbances" on labour markets, the report concludes.

Workers from the 'new' EU member states have also contributed to the economic growth by bringing more workers where they were most needed, and have had "little or no negative impact" on wages and unemployment levels.

Brussels also stresses that most of the migrant workers are "young, single and working," with 80 percent of those coming from one of the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004 - as well as 70 percent of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants - being younger than 35.

Consequently, the commission "encourages member states to lift restrictions to the free movement of workers as quickly as possible," and reminds that "freedom of movement is a right for every EU worker and is one of the four fundamental freedoms of the European Union."

It also believes that lifting the limitations would decrease the levels of undeclared work and the negative consequences on the economy, as well as the social costs that go with it.

Most countries closed for Bulgarian and Romanian workers

EU member states have been able to restrict access to their labour markets for "new" EU countries' workers for a set period of a maximum of seven years, after which all of them must fully open to the newcomers.

Currently, most of the EU-15 countries – with the exception of Germany, Austria, Belgium and Denmark – have lifted the restrictions for citizens from Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia, while limitations were not imposed on Cypriot or Maltese workers.

However, all of the EU-15 states but Finland and Sweden have kept those restrictions in place for Bulgarian and Romanian workers, while some of them – including France, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg – have put in place more relaxed regimes for certain jobs and for workers with certain qualifications.

The member states concerned have to notify the commission by 31 December of whether they intend to keep the restrictions in place for three more years for Bulgarians and Romanians.

According to press reports, however, some of them – notably Ireland – have already indicated that this is likely to happen.

For their part, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Denmark have until 31 April 2009 to inform Brussels of their plans for workers from the 2004 enlargement countries, but if they intend to keep the limitations in place for a final two-year period, they have to show that they expect "serious labour market disturbances, or serious threats for the labour market balance."

The commission has no answer, however, as to what it would do in case it estimated those member states' justifications insufficient, and simply says that "all options are open."

In contrast, all of the countries affected by the barriers but Hungary have fully opened their labour markets to workers from all across the EU.

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Belgium decided on Friday to keep barriers in place for Bulgarian and Romanian workers for three more years, amidst fears of growing unemployment in the context of the economic crisis.

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