EU expansion - haggling over the smallprint

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Last weekend was a time for horse-trading in the small Swedish town of Nykoping. Foreign Ministers from the countries of the European Union started talking in earnest about some of the more delicate issues associated with EU expansion. Fearful of an influx of cheap labour, Germany and Austria repeated their call for a seven-year period, during which workers from new member countries would not be able to work freely within the Union. As David Vaughan reports, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary are resisting the demands with passion.

The free movement of labour is a highly sensitive issue along the line that was once the Iron Curtain. While in Germany and Austria there are fears of hoards of Czechs and Poles taking local jobs, the candidate countries themselves feel that any compromise on the question of free labour movement undermines the very principles on which the European Union was founded. The weekend meeting gave the Czechs some reason for optimism, as EU countries failed to unite behind the Czech Republic's two western neighbours, and Spain and Greece rallied behind the candidate countries. But as final talks on the EU labour chapter draw close, it remains very likely that Brussels will introduce bars to free labour movement.

During the weekend meeting, the Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, refused to acknowledge the German and Austrian grievances, saying that they were based on emotions and not facts. Various studies support Mr Kavan's view, but the head of the European Union delegation in Prague, Ramiro Cibrian, feels that it would still be wrong to ignore German and Austrian fears, even if their problems are simply in the mind.

"Psychological problems are real problems. Otherwise the psychologists and psychiatrists and plenty of politicians would have no work. We all know that in a number of member states, the population, who at the end of the day has to accept the enlargement, is worried about the possible impact on their labour market. These preoccupations of the populations are a reality that responsible political leaders and responsible political institutions have to take into full consideration when negotiating and when discussing the enlargement of the union."

Jan Kavan
The EU member countries are juggling with public opinion, but while they do so, there is also a danger of alienating the public in the applicant countries. In Sweden Czech Foreign Minister Kavan, sent a stern warning to his EU allies. The Czech government remains firmly behind expansion, but, if the seven-year bar on free labour movement does become a reality, Czech citizens could express their anger by rejecting EU membership in a referendum. The EU's Prague chief, Ramiro Cibrian, feels that these fears are exaggerated.

"I am convinced that as in many occasions in the past, after a number of discussions, some of them difficult - a number of strong statements and so on - both the leaders and the citizens of the union will realize that it is important to find a reasonable compromise. I am absolutely convinced that at the end of the day, on the difficult issues that we have to tackle, we will be able to find reasonable compromises, and I am absolutely convinced that the public opinion, the people both from the present-day member states and the future member states will endorse those reasonable compromises."

The very fact that emotions are running high over very specific issues concerning EU expansion is a sign that both sides are beginning to see an expanded Union as a reality rather than an abstract question. The horse-trading is beginning in earnest. In that respect, the Czech government can probably take heart. As the Estonian Foreign Minister said in Sweden on Sunday, haggling over other people's futures is all part of the game.