New proposal on the table for free movement of labour

Jan Kavan

As the European Union's 15 member states and the 12 candidates for membership gear up for June's major summit in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity recently in an attempt to resolve the thorny issue of the free movement of labour. The Dutch Foreign Minister, Jozias van Aarsten, hit Prague on Tuesday for talks with his Czech counterpart Jan Kavan, and during his visit he described the latest proposal to resolve this highly divisive issue. Nick Carey reports.

Jan Kavan
The dispute over the free movement of labour has taken up endless pages in the Czech press recently, and it has Czech Euro-sceptics up in arms over what they call the discriminatory approach of the EU's member states. The free movement of labour is one of the Union's central tenets, but concerns are rife in Germany and Austria that in an expanded EU thousands upon thousands of unwanted cheap labourers will flood their labour markets. Therefore, they have proposed a transition period of up to seven years, during which time workers from candidate countries such as the Czech Republic will be prevented from seeking employment in the current 'EU 15'.

The candidate countries have reacted angrily to the proposal, and numerous Czech politicians say this implies second class membership for the Czechs. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan has warned several times that the issue is so sensitive that it could turn Czech public opinion against the EU. But the Dutch Foreign Minister, Jozias van Aarsten, was quick to point out during his visit to Prague on Tuesday that the Dutch are firmly behind Czech EU membership and are fundamentally opposed to transition periods of any kind:

"The Netherlands are against transition periods. We don't need them. I don't think it's the right way forward for the European Union. We should have a market that is liberal, and make the movement of people as liberal as you can imagine."

Mr van Aarsten also described a new proposal tabled by Sweden, which he feels could resolve the issue:

"The Swedish presidency has produced a new and revised proposal. The rule to be applied is that the free movement of people is to be as liberal as possible and those countries that want to be an exception can notify the [European] Commission, but then they will have to participate in a review after two years."

But how will the Czech government and people react to the idea? How acceptable will it be to have a transition period in just a few countries, namely Germany and Austria, rather than in all fifteen current member states? Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan feels that the Swedish proposal may be just the right kind of compromise for the Czechs:

"I find the proposal very encouraging and if that is going to be the basis of the common position of the fifteen [EU member states], then it seems to me that there is a very good likelihood that following negotiations we will be able to accept a compromise along those lines."