Spain, Portugal, Finland to open labour markets to new EU citizens

This week Spain, Portugal and Finland become the latest members of the "old" EU to announce they will open their labour markets to workers from the "new" Europe - the Czech Republic included. France and Italy are also said to be considering relaxing restrictions on EU newcomers. But will Czechs - so attached to their families and country cottages - be keen to take up the offer?

The labour market restrictions were brought in when the EU expanded in 2004, to calm fears among citizens of the "old" Europe that their countries would be flooded with cheap labour from the east. So at present Czechs, Slovaks and Poles etc are not allowed to work freely in western Europe, with the exception of Britain, Ireland and Sweden.

On May 1st Spain, Portugal and Finland will join them - lifting all restrictions on workers from new EU members. Daniel Munich, an expert on labour markets for the Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education of Charles University (CERGE), welcomed the news:

"Definitely it's a good thing, for several reasons. First, the predictions done by most European economists that opening labour markets will not lead to an outflow of labour from new members to old members have been proved. Second, we are going to fulfil full membership. Until now, we've been something like half members of the EU, because the free flow of labour is a feature of the European Union and we were not allowed to move freely until now. So this is a good message economically and also for the feelings of people in the new member states."

Photo: European Commission
With six members of the old EU offering uncontrolled access to their labour markets, the question is whether Czechs will take up the offer. People in the Czech Republic barely move around their own country to find work, let alone look abroad. Daniel Munich says there are good reasons for this:

"The Czech Republic is doing quite well. It's still one of the leaders among new member states. The standard of living and earning possibilities for young people are really good here, so they don't have so many reasons to look for jobs elsewhere. Second, traditionally, young Czechs are used to depend on their parents and this is a big obstacle preventing mobility. If you move from your village or your town to find a job, you lose this parental help and the help of your friends."

The remaining nine members of the "old" Europe have until the end of April to tell the European Commission whether they are planning to apply for an extension to the restrictions, or open their labour markets. The French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin says the French authorities are planning to let in workers in selected areas of employment where there are labour shortages. Italy has also announced similar measures. As for other countries - including neighbouring Germany & Austria, which are perhaps the most attractive and convenient for Czechs - the doors are expected to remain firmly closed, for several more years at least.