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East: EU Offers Some Post-Enlargement Labor Movement Solutions

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Brussels, 1 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union for the first time has revealed what workers from candidate countries might expect after EU enlargement. The free movement of labor promises to be one of the thorniest issues in accession talks this year, after both Germany and Austria said last autumn they would like to impose a seven-year ban on Eastern European workers wishing to join their workforces.

Responding to inquiries from journalists, the European Commission today took the unusual step of lifting the veil of secrecy that usually covers proposed commission legislation before it is approved by the EU's 15 member states.

The Commission confirmed that it is in the process of compiling an "options and ideas" paper outlining the range of alternatives available to EU member states as they prepare their individual negotiating positions regarding the labor issue.

Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said today that while the commission would make no concrete recommendations of its own, it sees five alternative solutions to the labor movement problem.

A commission source who wished to remain anonymous later gave a detailed description of the five alternatives.

The first alternative is the one currently being demanded by all 13 candidate countries. Upon admissions, the citizens of each country would be free to work throughout the EU.

The second option proposes a transitional regime that would delay for a set period of time the full extension of EU rights to candidates. Such a regime reflects the position favored by both Austria and Germany.

A third alternative outlined by the commission is to opt for a set of "safeguard" clauses in accession agreements. Such clauses would grant candidates full access to EU labor markets but would allow the 15 original member countries to impose curbs should the inflow of people lead to serious distortions in their economies.

The commission source said the threshold at which curbs would be triggered, as well as the extent of consultations necessary to impose them, remain in question.

Option four would allow the EU to adopt a country-by-country approach. Some members could impose transitional restrictions on new entrants, while others opened their borders fully. This alternative would see differentiation between candidate countries based on their perceived threat to EU labor markets.

The last alternative would implement a quota system for workers from Eastern Europe. Such a system means that while citizens of new members would technically be granted full freedom-of-movement privileges, their actual entry into original EU countries would depend on quotas dictating how many Eastern European workers can enter the EU at any given time. The commission source said the quota limitations could be EU-wide or work on a per-country or even per-economic sector basis.

Commission officials are privately skeptical that member states will make quick progress in reaching common ground on the issue. Although the Nice summit endorsed the commission's "road map" for talks, which proposes the completion of labor movement talks before July, the general consensus now seems to be that this might not happen before the end of the year.