Old member states grappling with labour movement issue

A study out in Britain substantiates that labour migration from Eastern Europe has been “broadly positive.” Meanwhile, Belgium appears determined to keep its labour market closed.

Driven by persistent fear from an increase in unemployment and ‘welfare tourism,’ certain old member states – among them Austria and Germany – have already declared their intention to keep their labour markets closed to workforce from the EU-8 states for at least three more years. Berlin reportedly wants to extend the restriction period until 2011. 

Belgium will also keep the ‘transitional restrictions’ in place after 1 May 2006, the government decided in the last days of February. 

Against the backdrop of most old member states’ reluctance to open up their labour markets, the Commission has declared 2006 the European Year of Workers’ Mobility (see EURACTIV 21 February 2006). 

Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla has said that the Commission "cannot force [the old member states] to lift the restrictions but we can provide evidence that the countries that did away with the restrictions are doing fine."

According to a study commissioned by Britain's Department for Work and Pensions and entitled 'The impact of free movement of workers from Central and Eastern Europe on the UK labour market,' researchers have found no "discernible statistical evidence" to suggest that labour migration from the EU-8 countries has been a contributor to the rise in Britain's unemployment rate in 2005. Last year, claimant unemployment increased by some 90,000 in the UK. Instead, the study says that "overall, the economic impact of migration from the new EU member states has been modest, but broadly positive."

The study reveals that between 1 May 2004 and 30 September 2005 applications by some 293,000 migrants were processed by Britain's Worker Registration Scheme (WRS). Registration is obligatory via the WRS for those migrants who are employed in the UK for a month or more. The vast majority of the applicants were Polish (58%), followed by Lithuanians (14%) and Slovaks (11%). 

Britain's Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said that "the figures show that workers from the accession states continue to come to the UK to work, filling important vacancies, supporting the provision of public services in communities across the UK and making a welcome contribution to our economy and society."

Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen believes that free labour movement within the EU is a key to the member states' development. If Europe closes itself in its own shell, it could be certain that Asia will overcome it, he said. 

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has said that "a number of countries have already opened their borders. A number of others we know of are going to decide in the coming days and weeks whether to keep their borders closed for another three years. We're not doing one or the other."

Estonia's Prime Minister Andrus Ansip has said that "even if we lose some bright people to the old EU member states, I believe people cannot be held like a slave in their country. It would be criminal to keep young talented people locked up out of fear that we may lose them to other countries."

Following the EU's enlargement by ten new member states in May 2004, several old members introduced restrictions on the free movement of labour, fearing the adverse effects of a widely predicted influx of migrants. Britain, along with Ireland and Sweden, chose to open its borders to migrants from Eastern Europe, expecting them to fill gaps in the labour market. 

Under the so-called 2+3+2-year scheme allowed for by the Accession Treaty, each member state has the right to decide whether to keep or remove 'transitional restrictions' on the free movement of labour, which is a fundamental freedom of the EU. The member states now have until the end of April 2006 to decide on their approach to the issue.

The Commission has said that, based on its "rigorous analysis of facts," the free movement of labour is "economically rational" (see EURACTIV 9 February 2006). Therefore the Commission has indicated that it would like to see the EU's old member states to open up their labour markets to the new member states' citizens.

To date, Finland, Portugal and Spain have declared their readiness to lift the barriers and allow new member state citizens unrestricted access to their labour markets.

From the outset, the citizens of Cyprus and Malta have been exempted from the 'transitional restrictions' - thus the barriers applied to migrants from eight new member states only (EU-8).

  • The first two-year period specified in the 2+3+2-year scheme expires on 30 April 2006. The member states have until then to declare whether they keep or lift the existing 'transitional restrictions' on the free movement of labour.

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