The spring deadline is approaching for EU member states to declare whether or not they will remove controversial restrictions on the free movement of labour. The latter is a fundamental principle of the Union.
A Commission report is due out on in early February, which will assess the European labour market situation two years after the Union’s last enlargement round. True to its mandate, the Commission will not offer recommendations to the member states. It is the competence of each member state to decide on what line to pursue with regard to the movement of workers. However, all 25 states are expected to notify the Commission of their respective policies before 1 May 2006.
The Commission’s February report is expected to state that post-enlargement labour migration has been beneficial to the Union as a whole. Labour flows have been modest and eastern job-seekers have filled posts mostly in sectors that would otherwise be hard to fill.
All in all, the three member states that chose to open up their labour markets in 2004 have registered a total of around 450,000 applications from eastern European job seekers (over 290,000 in Britain, some 140,000 in Ireland and 22,000 in Sweden). The Commission report is expected to hold up the example of these three states as proof of the benefits of removing the restrictions.
Spain, Finland, Portugal and Greece now appear inclined to ease or even remove restrictions on labour movement from the EU-8 states in May 2006. France and Belgium are reportedly considering easing the restrictions only gradually, leading up to their full removal by the end of the decade. Denmark said that it will give its policy a careful review. Austria and Germany, both saddled with high unemployment, have indicated that they will keep the restrictions in place.
Non-EU member Norway is also considering opening its doors to the new EU member states.
In a referendum in September 2005, Switzerland decided to open up its labour market to workers from the EU-10 countries.
Meanwhile, a new EU directive that entered into force on 23 January gives third country (ie non-EU) nationals the right to access education provided that they had been continuously legal residents in the EU for over five years with “stable resources” and sickness insurance.