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EU: Foreign Ministers Disagree On Labor Movement After Expansion

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Union foreign ministers have failed to agree on a common position on the issue of worker movement between old and new member countries after enlargement. Spain refused to endorse the lengthy curbs on labor market access proposed by Germany and Austria. However, it remains likely Spain will drop its opposition to restrictions on worker movement once it receives guarantees from Germany on continued development support after expansion. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas examines what is at stake.

Brussels, 15 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- After intensive talks in Brussels yesterday, EU foreign ministers remain deadlocked over the issue of worker movement after enlargement.

The disagreements center on the division that appeared two weeks ago between Spain, Portugal, and Greece on one side, and Germany and Austria on the other.

The poorer member countries, led by Spain, want guarantees that they will retain current levels of development aid after enlargement in exchange for supporting the German and Austrian request for a maximum seven-year ban on Eastern workers.

Spain, Portugal, and Greece receive the bulk of EU development aid. But under current rules they would lose most of this support after expansion, since they are substantially richer than most of the candidate states.

During the course of yesterday's discussions, Portugal and Greece agreed to a compromise that incorporates all key demands made by Germany and Austria. They also accepted a general promise that their concerns would be acted on at a future date. But Spain continued to hold out and insisted that the EU's Gothenburg summit in June adopt a "political declaration" pledging to maintain aid levels after enlargement.

Publicly, EU diplomats appear optimistic, saying a solution to the problem is very close. Sweden's Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, speaking for the EU's current presidency, said negotiations with Spain would continue in the coming weeks.

Lindh said the differences in the positions were not insurmountable.

"I think the presidency proposal [envisaging a maximum seven-year closure of EU labor markets to Eastern workers] is generally accepted. But it needs some points of technical clarification and we also need that all member states are willing to [come to an] agreement -- but it looks very good, as almost everyone agrees to it."

Privately, however, EU diplomats say the Spanish position has hardened since it was last discussed at the foreign ministers level in Nykoping, Sweden, a week ago.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique said his country is not proposing to link the issues of worker movement and development aid and is prepared to settle each issue separately. This would appear to enable Spain to outflank critics like Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who say Spain's opposition to curbs on labor movement is motivated by narrow self-interest.

Pique said Spain -- which joined the EU 15 years ago - would prefer that all EU laws apply equally to both old and new members from the day of enlargement.

Pique also said Spain would favor a system under which any restrictions on candidate access to EU labor markets would differentiate among the candidate countries. According to Pique, the fact that the present proposal for curbs exempts the Mediterranean applicants Cyprus and Malta suggests that there is room for different treatment of individual East European candidates. In Pique's words: "Hungary is not Slovenia and Poland is not Estonia."

Pique summed up the Spanish position as follows.

"One position is mostly the position of Germany and Austria -- very restrictive with a delay in the application of 'acquis' [that is, EU regulations -- in this case pertaining to the free movement of workers] of about seven years, including also services and without any principle of differentiation among candidates. This is unacceptable for example to us [Spain]."

Pique acknowledged Spain would be prepared to "understand" what he called the "psychological problems" of other members -- by which he meant the fear of German and Austrian voters that enlargement could bring a massive influx of cheap labor. He said Spain was prepared to do this if others in turn understood Spain's worries over finances.

Pique said that in the past 15 years, Spain's per capita gross national product, or GNP, had climbed from 68 percent to 83 percent of the EU average. Pique said Spain would be happy to relinquish development support once its per capita GDP is above 90 percent of the EU average. Assuming present rates of convergence, Spain would need to retain current levels of EU aid until about 2010.

So far, this is a commitment that Germany, Austria, and other EU net contributors have appeared unwilling to make.

Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner said yesterday that Austria's transition requests on the free movement of workers and some services were "legitimate."

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