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EU: Transition Periods Likely For Eastern Workers After Expansion

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union is nearing a decision on one of the most sensitive issues in its accession negotiations with Eastern candidates: the free movement of labor after enlargement. The 10 Eastern candidate-states say that after they become members their citizens should be free to work anywhere in the EU. But some member states, fearing a wave of immigration, would like to see some restrictions. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas talked this week with EU Employment Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou. She says certain restrictions appear inevitable.

Brussels, 15 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As recently as two weeks ago, the European Commission said the issue of the free movement of labor after enlargement was wide open. In a so-called "options paper" presented to the EU's 15 member states, the commission outlined five possibilities, ranging from allowing workers of new members to find jobs anywhere in the EU to imposing lengthy restrictions on their movement.

Now, after several rounds of discussions, member states have whittled down the number of options to three. Owing to pressure from some EU countries -- especially Germany and Austria, which share borders with prospective members -- the EU has shelved the idea of allowing full and unlimited access to labor markets. The Union has also given up as too cumbersome the option of setting up a transitional system of using quotas to check the inflow of East European workers.

The three options that remain all involve some form of transitional restrictions on labor movement after expansion to the east.

This was confirmed yesterday by EU Employment Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou in an interview with our correspondent. She says that the three options are setting uniform rules for applicant states that would apply throughout the EU, setting different rules for some members or candidates, or setting uniform rules at first but agreeing to relax them after a period if there are no problems:

"[T]here are different scenarios. In one of them, there is a proposal for the same rules for all applicant countries and for all member states. There is another scenario with differentiation for the applicant countries or for the member states. There is a third scenario with the same rules in the beginning for all applicant countries, and after two years there could be a revision and if we can see there are no particular problems in some labor markets, they can open. So, these are the three main scenarios."

Diamantopoulou says the commission is expected to flesh out the three alternatives in another options paper to be handed to member states next week. She says she expects a final EU common position to emerge by the summer.

An official at the EU's Council of Ministers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that discussions among member states are now focusing on the technical points of the eventual transitional arrangements.

The official says one of the core issues is whether to treat each member and candidate state differently, based on their specific conditions. Germany and Austria, for example, are clearly more worried about the influx of Eastern workers than, say, Spain and Portugal. Among candidates, on the other hand, the relatively small and distant Cyprus and Malta would pose considerably fewer problems for West European labor markets than the Central European applicants.

Commissioner Diamantopoulou seemed to rule out radical differentiation, arguing for the third option, where an initial blanket ban on worker movement would be gradually revised on a case-by-case basis.

"If we have the same rules, maybe there are some objections that applicant countries do not have the same population, do not have the same problems. If we have differentiation, then there are other arguments, saying 'Why do we treat applicant countries in a different way? It is not very obvious what are the criteria.' So, in any case, one must strike a balance, it is not always white and black."

Regardless of which of the three alternatives prevails, candidate countries can take comfort from the fact that things can only get better in the long run. The council official says all member countries agree that any transitional arrangements must be subject to "progressive liberalization" -- in other words, they must be relaxed over time.

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