Crisis-struck Italy is lifting labour market restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians while nine other EU countries are maintaining their curbs, with several citing high unemployment.
Rome decided to fully liberalise its labour market for citizens of the EU's two newest members as of 1 January, an official at the Romanian Embassy in Italy told EURACTIV. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially informed Romanian and Bulgarian diplomats about its decision on 29 December.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano had previously said that "there are no plans to adopt restrictive measures for Romanian workers in any way."
This has been widely seen as a positive signal in Bulgaria and Romania, which entered the EU in 2007. Both nations have complained of bias because their nationals were not able to enjoy free access to the Union's labour market.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov and Labour Minister Totyu Mladenov (who are not related) issued a statement praising the lifting of restrictions announced by Rome. They said the decision corresponded to the "excellent state of relations and strategic partnership between Bulgaria and Italy", reported Dnevnik, EURACTIV's partner agency in Sofia.
One positive signal
Rome’s decision is a “proof” that keeping labour market restrictions is done out of political and not economic reasons, said MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu (EPP-Romania).
“The fact that a country like Italy, undergoing tough austerity measures, took this decision shows that it has realised that Romanian and Bulgarian workers help their economy,” Marinescu said. “Plus, there are so many Romanians there, and this comes to show just how well appreciated they are.”
There are over a million Romanians living and working in Italy. Some 30,000 Italian companies in Romania employ more than 800,000 Romanian workers, according to the Romanian Ministry of Interior.
Marinescu said that Italy’s decision sends a positive signal to other countries which are still keeping their labour market closed to Romanians and Bulgarians, claiming they need to protect themselves from rising unemployment.
The Romanian Embassy in Rome thanked the Italian government for opening the market, “especially in the context of the challenges raised by the current economic crisis”.
Nine negative signals
Nine EU countries have decided to keep restrictions for the next two years “fully or partially”, the European Commission said. Up to now, 10 countries maintained restrictions (see Background).
Among those nine countries, the UK, Germany and Ireland were the first to notify the Commission of their decision to keep the restrictions. The Netherlands and Belgium also said they would continue to require working permits for nationals of the two countries for the next two years.
However, EU countries cannot impose restrictions without officially justifying their decision first, LászlóAndor, commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, said recently.
“[The notification] also has to be supported by analysis of the labour market turbulences or the threat of such turbulences in the given country, and we will look at it on a case-by-case basis," Andor said.
The Commission has not yet examined all the notifications sent by the nine member states on restricting labour market access but said that it was expecting to publish an update of all notifications provided in the next few days.
Blaming the crisis
Several countries that have announced they will keep the labour market closed to Romanians and Bulgarians have reportedly invoked the effects of the economic crisis.
Spain, which had liberalised its labour market to the two countries when they entered the EU in 2007, imposed working restrictions on Romanians last summer, partly because of the country's rising unemployment rate which. Spain's 21% jobless rate is the EU's highest.
UK Immigration Minister Damian Green said the decision to maintain work permits for Romanians and Bulgarians supports the British government’s commitment to reduce employers’ dependence on migrant workers, particularly for low-skilled jobs. "This will help the unemployed to find their way back into work and help the domestic workforce to acquire the skills the economy needs,” Green said.
The same arguments were echoed by the Dutch government, which justified its decision by invoking high unemployment figures and the state of the EU’s economy.
Luxembourg, the richest EU country, has also recently announced it will keep labour market restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians until the end of 2013 because of rising national unemployment figures. Luxembourg's jobless rate hit 6% early this year, leaving approximately 19,500 out of work, from a total of around 400,000 working people. The rate stood at 4.4% in 2008.
Dnevnik reported that Germany has substantially eased access to its labour market for Bulgarian nationals. The daily quoted a statement by the Bulgarian Labour and Social Affairs Ministry, according to which Bulgarians with university education would benefit from the measure, as well as seasonal workers, for a period of up to six months each year.
German Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently said that skilled labour is a top priority for the government. “Without sufficiently qualified personnel, the economic engine will stall. That is why the federal government has accorded top priority to securing the supply of skilled labour,” she said.
Romanians and Bulgarians will still be able to apply for work permits in the countries which will maintain the restrictions for the next two years, but they will not have the same rights as nationals from otherEU nations.