Ireland waives right to transition period on free movement of labour

Brian Cowen

The Czech Republic received a fresh boost to its European Union membership aspirations on Thursday, as Ireland's Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, in Prague on his first official visit to the country, announced that Ireland will not require a transition period for the free movement of labour after EU expansion. Mr Cowen also sought to reassure the Czechs that despite the rejection of the Nice Treaty, which paves the way for expansion, in a recent referendum in Ireland, the Irish government remains committed to the enlargement process. Nick Carey reports.

The free movement of labour within an expanded Europe has been a very tricky subject for the EU's member states and applicant states to handle. Germany and Austria in particular fear that after expansion their labour markets will be inundated with Eastern Europeans. They are therefore in favour of a transition period of up to seven years, during which time workers from candidate countries like the Czech Republic will be barred from finding gainful employment in the EU. Several of the twelve candidate countries have reacted angrily to the proposal, saying that the free movement of labour is a fundamental freedom of the European Union.

The European Commission has suggested a compromise, whereby individual member states will be able to choose whether or not to have a transition period. Czech negotiators have been lobbying in the EU's 15 member countries, trying to persuade them to waive the right to a transition period. Denmark and Sweden have already announced that they will forego restrictions on the free movement of labour, and at a press conference on Thursday, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen formally announced that Ireland is to follow suit:

"As concerns the free movement of labour, we are full in support of the immediate operation of this fundamental freedom for the Czech Republic in terms of their accession. We hope that the issues that are raised, which I accept are sensitive and important issues, are dealt with on the basis of mutual respect. But I assure you that the Irish government is very supportive of that position regarding that fundamental freedom, which is the cornerstone of our treaties and we are very supportive of candidate countries being entitled as a right to that freedom becoming exercisable from the point of accession."

Mr Cowen also referred to the rejection of the Nice Treaty by Irish voters earlier this month, which has caused concern throughout the EU and the candidate countries over the future of the expansion process. The Irish foreign minister said that his government remains firmly committed to EU enlargement, and announced plans for a national forum in Ireland to discuss the issues raised prior to this month's vote, ahead of a second referendum next summer:

"This does not mean that Ireland is against enlargement. We are very determined to pursue our policy of enlargement as a government. We believe that it has the support of the majority of the people of Ireland. Our referendum of course means that we have to have a period of reflection to look at the concerns and the anxieties that were raised during the election campaign, many of them beyond the parameters of the Treaty of Nice itself. We have agreed to establish a national forum in Ireland to have a rational, calm debate on all of the issues recognised as meriting further discussion. We are solidly committed to coming up with solutions commensurate to the issues that were raised during the campaign, so that we can ensure that enlargement proceeds as planned."