Commission calls for labour movement restrictions to be lifted

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According to the Commission’s “rigorous analysis of facts”, workers’ mobility from the new EU member states has had “mostly positive” effects on EU labour markets. The free movement of labour is “economically rational”, argues the commissioner in charge. The member states may hold a different view.

The Commission’s 8 February report does not provide specific recommendations. Instead, in the words of Social Policy Commissioner Vladimir Spidla, it is a “rigorous and careful analysis of the facts” pertinent to the labour movement trends within the Union. Through hosts of statistics the report reviews the first two years of a maximum seven-year transition period. It cites economic arguments against the two-year-old labour movement restrictions. The report is required under the 2003 Accession Treaty, which formed the basis for the 2004 enlargement round.

In its assessment, the Commission stresses that “immigration from non-EU countries is a much more important phenomenon” than the movement of labour within the Union.

The member states are free to decide individually whether to keep, abolish or change their approach to the issue. They have until the end of April 2006 to declare their decisions. To date, Finland, Greece, Portugal  and Spain have indicated their intention to remove the restrictions. Meanwhile, Austria and Germany have said that they will not be changing policy now. If a member state fails to observe this deadline, Community law automatically comes into force (which means that no labour market restrictions apply).

The controversy over the labour movement restrictions is tied to the much-disputed services directive, which partly governs the flow of labour within the Union. Opponents of the directive fear that relatively inexpensive workers from the east would apply the social and labour market rules of their countries of origin and would thus undermine the relevant standards in the west.

The Commission would like to see the Union's old member states open up their labour markets to workers from the EU-8 countries. The oft-predicted influx of workers from the east never materialised, and "positive" experiences have been registered in Britain, Ireland and Sweden, where no labour movement restrictions were introduced. All in all, the Commission's report describes as "very limited" the labour flows between the old and the new member states. Labour mobility has remained limited and overall it has not affected the Union's labour markets. Those eastern Europeans who moved to other labour markets within the EU have helped to alleviate skills shortages, the Commission report says. According to the Commission, the work permit system often turns out to be an incentive for migrant workers to operate in the black economy. In open systems, workers tend to operate above board, the report finds.

Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla has also been pressing for the easing or lifting of restrictions. He has urged member states "not only to take due account of the statistical evidence but also address an overall positive message to their citizens as to the prospects of free movement across the European Union".

Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has also urged the member states to lift labour movement restrictions. In a recent speech in the Czech Republic, Mandelson said that  “Have courage – put away your fears. Celebrate the opportunities that all fellow Europeans now have as a result of enlargement”. He also warned against populism: "There is no doubt in my mind that the referenda on the Constitutional treaty were lost in France and Holland because of a surge of populism on the Right and Left, in particular fears of immigration and globalisation, of 'foreign' competition – symbolised by the obsession in some member states with the phenomenon of the Polish plumber."

The Conservatives in the European Parliament believe that the old EU member states should follow the example of Britain and should fully open their borders to workers from the new member states. MEP Philip Bushill-Matthews said that "Old Europe's reluctance to open its labour market to new EU states is symbolic of its failure to adapt to the globalised world. It also signals that our new friends are regarded as second class citizens. The EU is supposed to be about freedom of movement - of goods, services, capital and also people. Old Europe should open its minds and open its borders, not build a Maginot line to block out change".

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group of the European Parliament believes that "The free movement of workers, just as the free movement of services, of which the new member countries are the vanguard, lie at the foundation of the Union, and nothing justifies that they be suspended any longer under false pretences". According to ALDE leader Graham Watson, "The principal political problem for the EU is the lack of courage from Europe's leaders who prefer to follow a public opinion which is scared by disinformation, rather than steering it, as we have a right to expect from genuine leaders".

Parliamentarians of the Visegrad Four states (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) believe that the old member states have imposed labour movement restrictions only for political reasons as they have failed to come up with proven social and economic reasons.

Britain's Immigration Minister Tony McNulty said that the Commission's report "vindicated the success of the UK's policy in opening up our labour market. Accession workers are continuing to go where vacancies exist, helping to fill the gaps in our labour market".

However, Austria's Economy Minister Martin Bartenstein has said that the experience of those old member states that opted to pursue a liberal approach - in particular that of Britain - "provides reason for caution". Austria would maintain its restrictions, Bartenstein said, adding that "when the door is open one cannot shut it".

German Economy Minister Michael Glos has also reiterated his country's intention to keep the restrictions in place. "We can't do without [them]," he said.

Tony Venables, director of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), believes that "without the right to work, other rights are a dead letter". ECAS argues that the transitional arrangements are "unfair to new European citizens and counterproductive", and their maintenance has "wider consequences. They breed a sense of unfairness and, of people being treated as second-class citizens. They are a virus that can spread to other policies [...]".

The EU-15 states - with the exception of Britain, Ireland and Sweden - decided to keep their doors closed to workers from eight of the ten new EU member states who joined in May 2004. The restrictions, which include quotas or work permit requirements, do not apply to workers from Cyprus and Malta. The restrictions are to be phased out over a seven-year period. The first of the three phases within that period expires on 30 April 2006.

Freedom of movement is a fundamental right for every EU worker - this is one of the Union's four fundamental freedoms. 

  • On 16 February, the European Parliament will decide whether to open the Union's services market to full cross-border competition
  • The Commission's 8 February report will be handed over to the EU leaders' next summit in March
  • The member states have until 30 April 2006 to formulate their stance on the free movement of workers issue
  • The Commission's next such report is due out in 2009

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