Paroubek calls on Austria over jobs as Skromach threatens restrictions

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK

European Union leaders meet in Brussels on Friday for a summit dominated by the EU's budget. Indeed talks on the EU's finances are expected to be so tough there will be no room for anything else - certainly there will be little time for negotiations on the transition periods that prevent new members from free access to the EU's labour markets. But the free movement of labour remains uppermost in the new members' minds.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
Stop anyone in the streets of Prague and ask them about what they don't like about the European Union, and almost immediately they'll tell you it's the transition periods that prevent them from working freely in the "old" EU. Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden have opened their labour markets to Czechs, Poles and other citizens of the "new" Europe. Other countries, such as Austria, are making full use of the seven year transition period that restricts the employment of "new" EU citizens until 2011.

As EU leaders sit down in Brussels, Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek appealed to Austria to open its markets, saying Czech workers were highly unlikely to flood Austria and steal Austrian jobs. Writing in the daily Der Standard, Mr Paroubek said a shortening of the seven-year transitional period would be of a great symbolic and psychological value. "We'd feel like a respected member of the family," he writes. However his call will probably fall on deaf ears, says Kerry Skyring from Radio Austria International.

"It's all about votes in Austria. A great fear amongst the public - and a fear for which many politicians I think carry responsibility - that cheaper labour from neighbouring countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary will flood the market here, taking Austrian jobs. That has been shown in many public opinion surveys as a fairly high fear in the public consciousness."

With twelve months to go until the next elections, any movement on the issue can be ruled out. And - rather sadly for EU idealists - new members like the Czech Republic are now murmuring about implementing the same measures for Romania and Bulgaria, who plan to join in 2007.

Labour and Social Affairs Minister Zdenek Skromach
Labour and Social Affairs Minister Zdenek Skromach said this week that if the new members are not granted free access to EU labour markets, the wealthier among them - like the Czech Republic and Slovenia - would become highly attractive for poorer Romanian and Bulgarian workers. And, said Mr Skromach, the government would have no choice but to slap labour restrictions on the newcomers, to protect the Czech labour market.

This would not be aimed at Romanians and Bulgarians themselves, he said, but at the "old" EU 15, who were insisting on maintaining transition periods which Mr Skromach described as "discriminatory". Union leaders are even worried that the "old" EU 15 will fight for extensions to the transition periods beyond 2011. The free movement of labour was once a fundamental pillar of the EU. It now looks increasingly sidelined as politicians scramble to appease their voters.