France may lift work restrictions for Bulgarians, Romanians

Manuel Valls []

French government officials are to meet next week to decide whether to lift working restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals in an effort to provide legal status for some 15,000 Roma from these countries living in France.

French news media today (16 August) quoted Interior Minister Manuel Valls as saying that giving work rights to the Roma “could be one of the solutions” to the migrant community. Discussions within the government are expected next week.

Civil rights groups have long claimed that without such a measure, the integration of the Roma is impossible.

The move appears to mark a major shift in the way France tackles the problem of Roma from the two newest EU members. The new French government was recently criticised by rights activists, who accused Valls of following up former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy of dismantling Roma camps and carrying out arbitrary expulsions.

Valls dismissed the criticism, saying that the Socialist government's approach with tackling the Roma question had “nothing in common” with that of its centre-right predecessors.

Some 90% of the 15,000 Roma in France are from Romania, news media reported, with the rest being mostly from Bulgaria. Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are free to travel to the Schengen countries without visas for up to 90 days. Many Roma from these countries overstay and try to make a living, sometimes engaging in begging.

France and other EU countries must lift working restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals by 1 January 2014 under EU accession treaties. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007.

France is one of nine countries that still require Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to have a work permit. The others are Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Spain had opened completely to Bulgarians and Romanians, but last year obtained a ‘safeguard’ limiting further arrival of Romanian workers on its crisis-hit labour market.

European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding said in a statement:

"I welcome the fact that the French authorities will be prepared to cooperate with the Commission and affirm that no public policy will target any particular group. For its part, the Commission will monitor very closely the developments in France, to ensure that the procedural and substantive safeguards introduced in 2011 are correctly applied."

Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly also commented at a press briefing:

"Some member states apply restrictions on access to the labour markets for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens. Commissioner Andor has stated repeatedly, and you can check what he said most recently, that for a long time and certainly since these restrictions entered into the last phase that they should come to an end by 2013. We have called upon those member states that have these restrictions to terminate them. We think these restrictions do not make sense in economic terms for the countries that still maintain them because we have never seen any massive influx of population coming from the first 10 new member states or the last two ones. We have never seen any significant problems on the labour markets," Bailly said.

"We encourage member states to lift these restrictions. If France decides to go down that road, it would be very good news and it would make it possible to make the labour market more dynamic to ensure that needs are covered in certain areas by bringing in new labour in these countries," he added.

The Roma are the EU's largest ethnic minority, EU figures show, and trace their origins to mediaeval India. The Commission estimates the Roma population in the EU at 11 million.

Census statistics show that 535,000 Roma live in Romania, 370,000 in Bulgaria, 205,000 in Hungary, 89,000 in Slovakia and 108,000 in Serbia. Some 200,000 Roma are estimated to live in the Czech Republic and Greece, while 500,000 live in Turkey.

Many Roma from Eastern Europe moved to the West following the EU's enlargement. France is insisting that its measures of expelling members of the Romani community are not discriminatory and are intended to protect security and public order.

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