Despite earlier indications to the contrary, one of the first decisions of the newly appointed Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo has been to extend until the end of 2013 the restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers in Belgium.
The announcement, made by Belgian Employment Minister Monica De Coninck, is seen as a setback for Bulgaria and Romania, which had campaigned for lifting all remaining restrictions applying to their nationals in EU countries (see background).
On 25 October, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for removing restrictions applying to workers from the EU's newest members.
But other countries have gone the opposite direction and have hardened their stance. In April, the Netherlands introduced restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers similar to those applying to foreigners outside the EU. And in August, Spain, which had long opened its labour market to the two EU newcomers, introduced restrictions on Romanian workers because of rising unemployment in the crisis-hit country.
Two weeks ago, UK Immigration Minister Damian Green confirmed that Britain would maintain labour restriction until the end of 2013, and so did Ireland at the end of last week.
According to information obtained by EurActiv, Belgium is concerned by the fact that many Bulgarian and Romanian nationals already working in the country use different tricks to profit from the country's social security system. These include seeking bankruptcy protection for a new company or hiring and then immediately firing spouses from a firm recently set up in Belgium.
Commission to look at 'justifications'
The European Commission must examine the decisions against opening their labour market to Bulgarians and Romanians.
"It is not enough just to send a notification about the intention, it also have to be supported by analysis of the labour market turbulences or the threat of such turbulences in the given country, and we will look at it on a case-by-case basis," said László Andor, commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs.
Asked by EurActiv to comment on the 'social fraud' justification raised by Belgium, a leading Romanian MEP called it "a pretext".
Traian Ungureanu (European People's Party), a member of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee in the European Parliament and rapporteur on workers' mobility within the EU, said the allegation of social fraud was "just an administrative problem". He added that such a practice did not concern the vast majority of Romanians in Belgium.
"I think it's a pretext. Not all Romanians who come here are collectively plotting to benefit from the Belgian social system in various ways," Ungureanu said.
The Romanian MEP insisted that Belgium was profiting from the taxes paid by Romanian and Bulgarian workers, and that in general the nationals of those countries did not put pressure on Western European social benefits expenses.
EurActiv asked Ungureanu if the recent decisions by the UK, Belgium and Ireland did not constitute another humiliation for the European Parliament, similar to the one over the Schengen accession of Romania and Bulgaria, which was blocked by the Netherlands. On both issues the Parliament had issued bold resolutions in favour of Bulgaria and Romania, adopted with broad support, but individual member countries blocked any overture.
"The problem is that there are extremely powerful political and electoral interests at stake and … the same goes for Schengen accession," Ungureanu replied.
"They [the leaders of some older EU members] want to prove they are protecting their people in times of austerity - I am not sure to what extent they succeed in this. But I am sure that they harm countries like Romania and Bulgaria," he said.
The Romanian MEP hailed the Commission's determination to look at closely at the "justifications" put forward by the older EU members.
"Highlighting unemployment figures is not a good enough reason. They need to provide multiple, clear statistics to back their positions," he said.
In the meantime, the Romanian Socialist opposition in Brussels, which has been involved in talks to open Belgium's labour market for almost three years, issued a press release, lamenting the decision of the new Belgian government.