Member states ponder lifting labour market restrictions

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.

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.

"Free movement [of workers] has not created any major problems in the three countries which did not impose restrictions," said DG Employment Commission spokeswoman Katharina von Schnurbein.

According to a recent poll, 78% of the respondents to a survey in Ireland believe that the citizens of the new EU member states should be required to obtain work permits before being allowed to take up jobs in their country. At the same time, the poll also found that the majority of the Irish think that the presence of foreign workers is beneficial for their country. 

Slovenia's Labour Minister Janez Drobnic has said that his country would like to see restrictions on labour movement lifted by the old EU members. "Slovenia continues to underscore its wish for openness, for the free movement of services and labour. Slovenia poses no threats to other countries; other countries are not a threat to Slovenia," he said.

Czech Labour Minister Zdenek Skromach has said that "The real interest in working abroad is not large among Czechs. It is rather a question of the feeling that people are denied some rights."

Portugal's Prime Minister Jose Socrates has said that "The experience of these nearly two years shows that labour markets were not perturbed due to the entry [of the new member states]".

Ireland's Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said that "On the basis of our national experience, I would encourage those member states that have not opened their labour markets to do so".

Commenting on statistics which show that record numbers of eastern Europeans applied for residency permits in Denmark in 2005, Danish Minister of Integration Rikke Hvilshøj said that "We are talking about industries where a number of employers have had difficulty finding workers, so it is only good to see the positions filled by people from the new EU countries". 

Hungary's Labour Minister Gábor Csizmár expects his series of bilateral consultations with EU-15 members to be conducive to an easing of the restrictions after May 2006. Csizmár has pointed out that there are twelve times as many non-EU nationals working in the EU-15 as citizens of the new EU member states. He said that currently there are three times as many French citizens working in Hungary as Hungarian citizens in France. In Csizmár's opinion, the EU members should introduce a strict labour market monitoring system to keep track of the changes in labour movement, which should be free and legal and should be tied to obligatory registration rather than work permit schemes. A Hungarian proposal to this effect is scheduled to be submitted to the Council in March, EURACTIV.hu reported.

In a report prepared by the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research for the UK Presidency, author Patrick Weil said that "Restrictions on the movement of workers from the new member states should be removed immediately under certain criteria. At the very least, all restrictions on new European citizens with a university degree should be removed".

Attempting to ward off the widely predicted influx of cheap labourers and 'welfare tourists' from the east, 12 of the EU's 15 'old' member states introduced 'transitional restrictions' on labour movement at the time of the EU's fifth enlargement round in May 2004. Three other 'old' members (Britain, Ireland and Sweden) chose to refrain from applying such restrictions. The restrictions apply to eight new member states only (EU-8) as Cyprus and Malta have been exempted. 

The 'transitional restrictions' can be maintained for a maximum of seven years (commonly known in EU circles as the '2+3+2-year arrangement'). 

At the end of the first two-year period, ie by 30 April 2006, the member states have to declare whether they aim to ease, lift or keep the restrictions in place for another 3-plus years.

Analysts tend to agree that the EU as a whole needs migrant workers to help counter-balance the negative labour market effects of low birth rates and rising life expectancy.

Alongside the restrictions and the formal and informal barriers which are imposed by the national governments, a series of other, more general, factors also determine the inclination of EU citizens to work outside their home countries. These include knowledge of languages, the awareness of the relevant rights and obligations and the knowledge of the national labour markets, the recognition of the professional qualifications and experience, as well as the diverse cultural and psychological barriers.

Meanwhile, in order to encourage EU citizens to seek new jobs and work abroad, the Commission is set to launch its 'European Mobility Year' initiative in February. The initiative, which has a budget of 6 million euros, is based on the understanding that currently only 1.5% of Europe's total active work force hold jobs in another EU state, ie outside their own country, and only some 8% have changed professions.

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