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EU: Foreign Ministers Moving Toward Deal On Curbing Worker Movement After Expansion

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Union foreign ministers met over the weekend in Nykoping, Sweden, to discuss curbs on the movement of workers from Central and East European states after they accede to the EU. According to initial reports, the rough outlines of a trade-off among the EU's current 15 members may be emerging. The deal would allow Germany and Austria to push through their demand for a seven-year closure of EU labor markets to Eastern workers in exchange for assurances that enlargement won't harm the financial interests of the Union's poorer members.

Brussels, 7 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers, meeting over the weekend in Nykoping, Sweden, came close to resolving a damaging row that has erupted between the Union's richer and poorer members over development aid after enlargement.

At the heart of the conflict is Spain's refusal, backed by Portugal and Greece, to support the German and Austrian request to close EU labor markets to candidate countries for up to seven years after enlargement.

Germany and Austria fear a sudden influx of Eastern workers after enlargement could dangerously destabilize their labor markets. Spain, Portugal, and -- to a lesser degree -- Greece are farther away from the East European candidates. But it is an open secret in Brussels that their support for shorter curbs on Eastern labor movement is really based on fears of losing EU development aid after enlargement.

Nearly all candidate countries are poorer than the present poorest members of the EU. That means if current aid-disbursement rules were to be automatically extended to future members, many poorer areas in Spain, Portugal, and Greece would stand to lose a significant portion of their share of the EU's regional aid budget.

As a result, the three countries -- with the tacit support of Italy and France -- have asked the biggest net contributor, Germany, for assurances of continued aid in return for their support on the worker movement issue. While Italy and France are among the EU's richer members, they have traditionally been more preoccupied with Europe's South than with its East.

Although tempers occasionally flared at Nykoping, an outline of a deal seems to have been reached. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer used uncharacteristically sharp words to condemn attempts to link the two issues with what he termed a "package deal." But Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique said he was heartened by Germany and Austria's willingness to "keep on talking."

Foreign minister Anna Lindh of Sweden -- the current EU president -- said afterwards that she felt a deal was very close. Sweden has been charged with the task of forging a common EU position on worker movement before the end of its presidential term in June.

According to some (unnamed) EU diplomats, the Union's foreign ministers could wrap the matter up as soon as next week (14 May), when they are due to meet in Brussels. If everything goes to plan, the June EU summit in Gothenburg should produce a declaration indicating that enlargement would not lead to a significant loss of development support by poorer member countries.

This will inevitably mean that once the present EU budget expires in 2006, candidate countries will receive less structural and regional development aid than they have expected. They will also, of course, have to accept a lengthy ban on worker access to the current EU.

Finally, in a sign that candidate countries may face further conditions on their eventual membership, the European Commission today confirmed that Austria and Germany have officially requested curbs on the freedom of Eastern companies to provide services in the entire EU after enlargement. Both countries fear candidate workers could use the services chapter to circumvent restrictions imposed on labor movement.

Any attempt to impose restrictions on the provision of services could prove politically very explosive, however. Five candidate countries have already provisionally closed talks on the issue without having been asked to agree to any curbs.