Amid public fears that cheap labour from Poland and elsewhere could threaten local employment, Germany decided to not allow low-skilled Eastern European workers access to their labour market before 2011, the Labour Ministry said on Wednesday (16 July).
This move puts the country at odds with most other EU countries, which have already lifted their restrictions on workers from eight former Communist countries - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - which joined the Union in 2004. The 15 'old' EU members had agreed to lift restrictions as soon as possible but at the latest by 2011.
For Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the Union in 2007, restrictions must be removed by 2014.
Neighbouring France, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, lifted the remaining barriers as of 1 July this year, a year earlier than planned. The move came as a surprise as the French debate had until then been dominated by stereotypes of Polish plumbers stealing French jobs and driving down wages.
Similar concerns were also dominant in Germany, which borders Poland and the Czech Republic. The government has, however, pledged to facilitate access for high-skilled workers from the new member states, responding to calls from business which had complained about a chronic lack of highly trained workers such as engineers and computer programmers.
Apart from Germany, only Belgium, Denmark and Austria have thus far failed to ease restrictions on Eastern European workers.
Meanwhile, Austria was forced to concede that fears regarding the abolition of border controls along its Eastern frontier proved to be unfounded. Rather than opening the door to waves of illegal immigrants, the Eastern enlargement of the so-called Schengen zone (see our Links Dossier on Border Control) allowing for visa-free travel has made the country a safer place, Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter said on Tuesday (15 July).
The number of illegal immigrants arrested has fallen from 7,000 (2006) to 300, according to the authorities. Furthermore, Austria experienced a decrease in criminality of 6% across the country, while the border region even enjoyed a drop of up to 18% since border controls were abolished in last December, Fekter said.
Along the Austrian-Slovak border, the number of illegal immigrants caught went down from 751 in the first half of 2007 to 20 during the first six months of 2008, EurActiv Slovakia reports.
"Slovakia is no longer an attractive corridor for illegal migrants," Slovak Interior Minister Róbert Kaliňák said at a joint press conference with his Austrian counterpart at the Jarovce-Kittsee crossing.
Austrians were among the most sceptical regarding the Eastern enlargement of the Schengen zone. One Austrian village along the Hungarian border even hired a private security service to prevent illegal border crossings, according to EurActiv Slovakia.