Letter from Prague

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This week's letter takes a look at the free movement of labour within an expanded European Union, a sensitive issue that has caused controversy on both sides of the divide...

There are fears in Germany and Austria that when the European Union expands to include up to twelve new members, many of them post-communist countries, over the next five to ten years, that there labour markets will be inundated with cheap workers from the east. And if there is an influx of cheap labour, sceptics say, Germans and Austrians will lose their jobs, which would not be, and never is, a popular thing.

The free movement of labour is one of the main tenets of the European Union. It means that I, as a British subject, can travel and work in the EU member state of my choice. But when the EU, or the EC, or the EEC as it has been called during various stages of its existence, has expanded to take on poorer countries, such as Portugal and Spain, or Greece, there have always been these fears that the populations of these countries would suddenly uproot themselves en masse and descend on the Union's richer states, take all the jobs and leave the locals unemployed. It is a recurring fear, as in today's world many people are concerned for their jobs.

For Germany in particular, this is an internal political issue, as the country faces general elections next year. With a widespread fear such as this, it would be foolish of any German politician not to address the issue. And Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder has risen to the challenge, proposing that a transition period of up to seven years be introduced, during which time the citizens of candidate countries, such as the Czech Republic, would not be able to seek work in current EU member states.

This has the Czechs up in arms. It is an issue that I have heard discussed in shops, bars, restaurants, in work and at many press conferences over the past few weeks. Just as the Germans and Austrians are worried about their jobs, the Czechs are angry that they could be denied one of the fundamental rights of EU citizens. They see it as blatantly unfair that they should be prevented from going where they please in the European Union to find a job. I understand their anger, and their hurt pride. They feel it will make them second class citizens and the argument that a similar measure was introduced for Spain and Portugal does not seem to ease the pain.

But the interesting thing is that the whole debate over whether or not to allow Czechs the right to work where they want is that most Czechs don't want to work elsewhere. There will be a minimal number that will leave to work in other EU countries whenever they are given the green light to do so. A tiny, tiny percentage. The fact is that the Czechs do not want to leave the Czech Republic. They do not even want to leave their home towns. Seriously, there are areas with high unemployment in the Czech Republic that are literally next door to more prosperous ones. But, the vast majority of Czechs refuse to move, even it's just, say, sixty kilometres down the road to get a better job.

They simply stay put and it will be pretty much the same after the Czech Republic joins the European Union. So, in a way, the argument is merely hypothetical and pointless, on both sides of the divide. German and Austrian fears over a massive wave of Czechs coming in to take their jobs are unfounded, while Czech anger over not being allowed to work in other EU countries is a waste of time, because all but a tiny few will actually want to leave.