Commentary: True freedom of movement

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU should put an end to the system of work permits for union citizens from the new member states, argues Tony Venables, director of the Brussels-based European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).

On 1 May 2004, when the citizens of eight Central and Eastern European countries became European Union citizens, they were told they had the right to move freely within the union – the only exception being that, for cross-border employment, they might need a permit. In practice, however, that “exception” has turned out to be a significant deterrent and barrier. Without the right to work, other rights are a dead letter.

My organization, the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), is urging the European Commission to recommend an end to the system of work permits for European citizens from the eight member states of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly since 2006 is the European Year of Workers’ Mobility.

This is an important juncture in the future of transitional work arrangements, with the commission set to publish its report on the future of such arrangements this week. We are looking for clear European leadership from the commission. If the 12 old member states applying transitional measures can be persuaded to act together, then it will be much easier to open up the European labor market. If it is left to each country to decide on its own, there is a risk of repeating the lowest-common-denominator approach witnessed in the run up to the 2004 enlargement, when country after country decided on transitional arrangements because neighboring countries had. Unfortunately, the accession process provided for no co-ordination mechanism because, at that time, it was thought that few member states would resort to transitional measures.

There is now a strong case for getting rid of restrictions.

First, transitional arrangements are unfair to new European citizens and counterproductive. 

As just one example among many, the ECAS has been contacted by a Polish woman who has been living in Germany since 2002, working as a volunteer under programs financed by the EU and the German government. Paradoxically, although fully integrated and fluent in German, she is still impeded by the existing system of work permits. “The German authorities are making so many bureaucratic hurdles,” she said. “The whole process takes so long, just to exclude the non-German workers from entering the labor market.” The same could be said of other countries.

The coexistence of European rights and national restrictions on labor-market entry creates legally complex and confused situations. It encourages migrants to establish themselves as self-employed service providers rather than seek employment in their new country of residence.

Second, the overall picture in the expanded union is one of low-level, temporary migration.

The ECAS, with its hotlines and reports, has monitored the free movement of workers in the EU before and after May 2004. The latest report, “Who’s afraid of EU enlargement?”, was presented by ECAS Chairman Mario Monti to European Parliament deputies in Strasbourg last autumn, where it received widespread support from the delegations of old as well as new member states.

The report painted a picture of the extremely low level of movement of workers from new to old member states, with some signs of greater mobility starting within Central and Eastern European, concentrated in certain border regions. Most migrants are young, without dependents, in no way a burden on the host state, and intent not on a permanent move but on returning home as economic prospects improve. There are a high proportion of students improving their linguistic and academic qualifications, and seasonal and posted workers. 

With enlargement there was no migratory flood from old to new member states, only a trickle. Media attention focuses on the countries that have opened up their markets and where numbers are higher – ignoring the overall picture of rather low-level migration.

To read the article in full, visit the Transitions Online website.

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