European Commission report urges original EU countries to rethink labour restrictions

Photo: European Commission

The European Commission has just released a report on employment urging original EU members to ethink restrictions on the movement of labour from new EU countries. The report was prepared by EU Commissioner and former Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla. It has been nearly two years since the EU expanded to include former communist bloc countries like the Czech Republic, but only three - the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Sweden - opened their labour markets outright. Although estimates show that the number of new migrant workers has been fairly high, there hasn't been an "alarming" surge of cheap workers that some countries had feared. Jan Velinger spoke to David Kral of Europeum, a think-tank on European issues, asking him how he saw the experience of the past two years.

"The experience that we actually had with the three countries that opened the labour markets from the moment of accession of ten new countries in May 2004 actually shows that the movement of labour from new member states to the three countries - the UK, Ireland, and Sweden, has not been that significant. The numbers are quite insignificant in fact when compared to the numbers of workers from non-EU countries, and in that respect the European Commission would like current restrictions to [gradually] be lifted in the remaining 'old member' states."

Which countries are most likely to follow the recommendation in the Commission's report?

"Well, it seems almost certain some countries will lift restrictions after the expiry of this two year transition period (May 2006). It's most likely to be Finland, which already before accession signalled that it would open the labour market outright, but decided not to at the last moment. Spain and Portugal also seem to be quite certain, perhaps because both countries don't fall within the main 'target' destinations. There are not such high concerns there as in Germany and Austria. Also, some of the countries which are 'undecided' are thinking about lifting restrictions in some sectors at least, such as in the construction sectors in the case of the Netherlands and France."

Photo: European Commission
Of course this is really what it's about, isn't it? The main target countries: France, or in the case of the Czech Republic especially, neighbouring Germany and Austria. What would it take for these countries to drop restrictions sooner?

"Well, I think this is going to be quite difficult no matter what the figures actually tell us. The geographic proximity of these countries to the new member states makes the countries' populations more worried. If the economic situation in particular in Germany continues to improve, as it has been, that could have positive repercussions on opening-up the labour market. At the same time, it has been cited that Germany seems to be committed to keeping restrictions for the maximum transition period of seven years (until 2011). It seems that the political will is generally not there. We've seen even within the European Commission - which is not supposed to take into account national positions - one of the strongest clashes between the Austrian Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner vs. ,for example, the Czech Commissioner Vladimir Spidla or Poland's Danuta Hubner."

Photo: European Commission
Some Czechs say they don't even want to exercise the right to move into these labour markets, but add that without it they feel like 2nd class citizens.

"Yes, I think this is certainly one of the things that have to be taken into consideration: the symbolic dimension. Before accession, free movement of labour was cited as one of the 'cornerstones' of the European Union, and I think that keeping restrictions too long could have negative repercussions. Not just in public opinion towards the EU and further integration either, but also a real impact in economic terms. If the labour markets are not opened there is always the risk - and there have been examples already - of companies from the 'old' Europe moving production from old member states to new member countries. This is often not stressed enough: a step that could lead to job losses in the old member states."