EU expansion commissioner warns of transitional period for movement of labour

Gunter Verheugen

On Monday, EU enlargement commissioner Gunter Verheugen revealed that prior to EU expansion, the European Commission may propose a seven-year transitional period where the free movement of labour from candidate countries would be prevented. On the other side of the divide, the purchase of property in candidate countries by current EU residents would be also not be permitted.

According to Mr. Verheugen, the introduction of a transitional period for the free movement of labour may be necessitated by fears in some member countries, in particular Germany and Austria. Both countries share borders with post-communist candidate countries and fear an influx of cheap labour from countries such as the Czech Republic after EU expansion.

Czech government spokesman, Libor Roucek, however, believes that these fears are unfounded as far as the Czech Republic is concerned, as the government is finding it hard to get workers to move within the country to find employment, let alone abroad:

"I think that the fears of the Germans and the Austrians are a bit exaggerated because we have a problem within the Czech Republic, because we have regions where there is full employment, and on the other hand we have regions that are forty of fifty kilometres away from them where there is high unemployment. Sometimes we have problems moving people, in asking them to commute just fifty kilometres to work. So we think that this fear of some people in Austria and Germany, let's say in Austria it's the trade unions and people who live in border regions, is somewhat exaggerated and unnecessary."

One of the main proponents of a transition period for the free movement of labour after EU enlargement is German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose proposal for a period of seven years has gained considerable support in both Germany and Austria. According to Libor Roucek, these are internal issues that must be taken into consideration:

"There are concerns, especially in certain sections of German and Austrian society, and of course the enlargement process doesn't just have external dimensions, it also has internal dimensions. By this I mean the internal politics within the EU member countries, such as Germany and Austria. In Germany next year there will be elections, so certainly we have to take these fears and concerns into consideration, though as I said, we don't think there is any need to have any fears."

Gunter Verheugen has also alluded to a possible transition period, whereby current EU residents would be prohibited from purchasing property in candidate countries, where fears abound that large tracts of land will be bought up after accession. Although there are requests on both sides of the divide for transition periods, Libor Roucek says that the Czech government will not link the two issues:

"Those issues, I think, will be subject to discussions, because we are talking about the free movement of labour, but on the other hand, the countries in Central Europe, not just the Czech Republic, but also Poland and other countries as well, will ask for transition periods as far as the purchase of land is concerned. But we are not linking these issues."