21st Oct 2016

Western Europe remains wary of new member state workers

Two years after becoming citizens of the EU, workers from central and eastern Europe will see a further four 'old' member states lift their labour barriers – in line with basic EU rules.

Greece, Spain, Finland and Portugal have all agreed to remove worker restrictions before the 30 April deadline.

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These countries join the UK, Ireland and Sweden – the only member states of the 'old' 15 which never introduced temporary measures against workers from the new member states.

The remaining west European governments will either keep their labour markets closed or open them gradually.

"It is a real success, as a few months ago nobody would have expected a half of these countries to be without any restrictions and most of the others choosing some way to weaken them," commented social policy commissioner Vladimir Spidla.

Germany and Austria however are keeping full barriers in place, with Berlin and Vienna indicating they will make use of the whole transitional period – until 2011 – to keep the restrictions.

France informed Brussels it would "gradually" drop the barriers on a sector-by-sector basis and in line with agreements between the government, employers and trade unions.

Denmark is also planning to relax its existing restrictions and phase them out completely in the next three years, with the national authorities promising to "take steps to help enterprises recruit foreign workers to sectors that experience a shortage of labour."

A similar cherry-picking method will be used by Luxembourg and Belgium, which reported they would make the work permit procedure more flexible in certain sectors or occupations.

Italy increased a quota for foreign workers from 85,000 to 170,000 with statistics showing that previous quotas were not filled in the past.

The Netherlands postponed a final decision on the issue until the end of this year. The government has suggested opening up the country's labour market but parliament still has to make a decision.

The European Commission has urged all "old" member states to lift their national restrictions, arguing that the May 2004 enlargement has not resulted in an overwhelming influx of new workers or increased unemployment among home citizens.

Only in Ireland and Austria do nationals from new EU member states represent more than one percent of the working age population, hitting 3.8 percent and 1.4 percent in the two countries respectively.

Sofia and Bucharest await the same debate

By the end of this year, all 25 EU member states are set to indicate what approach they will take to Bulgaria and Romania, expected to join the bloc in 2007, with a combined population of around 30 million.

But UK interior minister Charles Clarke recently hinted Britain may not automatically apply the same rule to Sofia and Bucharest as to the eight central and eastern European member states while commissioner Spidla has admitted he has seen "vague signs" of hesitation on the matter in some national capitals.

Some new member states have also inticated they may play tough with the two fresh newcomers.

Czech social affairs minister Zdenek Skromach has remarked Prague may consider introducing restrictions against Romania and Bulgaria if the "old" member states keep their barriers against the eight former entrants.

But the commission has criticised this with commissioner Spidla noting, "Those member states that have been trying hard to achieve that barriers against their citizens be lifted should consider very cautiously whether they would take the same approach as the one they have criticised."

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