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EU: Eastern Candidates Express Frustration At Labor Row

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Foreign ministers of the six leading candidates for membership in the European Union have met in Prague to discuss progress toward expansion. At a press conference after the talks, some ministers did not conceal their frustration at the row now going on among EU members about restrictions on the free movement of labor from East to West. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 24 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign ministers of the front-running candidates for accession to the European Union met in Prague yesterday to discuss progress -- and problems -- in the enlargement process.

The ministers -- from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and Cyprus -- issued a diplomatically worded statement in which they expressed "satisfaction" that the Union had met the institutional preconditions for enlargement at its Nice summit five months ago. They reaffirmed their countries' "determination" to be ready for membership by the start of 2003, and they said they "expect" next month's EU summit in Sweden will spell out a timetable for the coming accession.

But the statement had a sting in its tail. At the end, it "invited" present EU member-states to avoid complicating the accession process by creating what it called "undue links" between different negotiating issues and by pursuing "short-term political interests."

This was a reference to the heavyweight quarrel now taking place among present EU members, which involves the linkage of two key issues that in themselves are quite separate. These issues are the free movement of labor and how development aid is to be shared among old and new members.

Germany and Austria, fearing a flood of cheap labor from the East when the newcomers join the Union, want a transition period of up to seven years during which Eastern workers would not have free access to Western labor markets.

At the same time, three of the poorer EU members -- Spain, Greece, and Portugal -- are worried that their massive levels of development aid from Brussels will be cut and the money assigned instead to the incoming Easterners.

The tie between the labor and aid issues is that Spain, supported by its two allies, wants guarantees that it will not lose access to high levels of development assistance after enlargement. It is threatening to block a compromise deal on the labor issue until it receives such guarantees.

The row, therefore, could derail the enlargement process.

After their meeting in Prague yesterday, the foreign ministers of the six candidates held a press conference during which the diplomatic mask was put aside and their frustration was made manifest.

Slovenia's Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel was forthright in his condemnation of the proposed labor restrictions. He said:

"Slovenia believes that the restrictions imposed -- or being imposed, or planning to be imposed -- are completely unacceptable to Slovenia. There are more Austrians working in Slovenia than Slovenes in Austria and it is an absolutely unnecessary and unpleasant surprise for us to see such a restriction imposed."

He went on to note that the free movement of labor among member states is one of the basic tenets upon which the Union is based:

"Of course, the European Union has been based, has been founded on freedoms. One of them is freedom of free movement, of free employment and so on. So we are talking about the basic freedoms and the foundations of European life and European organization. Here, we are confronted with the European Union taking away one of the -- I would say -- one of the most important rules of its organization."

Estonia's Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves also cast doubt on the validity of the EU members' fears that they will be overrun by cheap labor from the East. Ilves said:

"I think it is an especially cynical thing to say, given that the countries that are most concerned about free movement of labor are experiencing a labor shortage and are willing to make great exceptions for any of the people that we have trained at taxpayers' expense in our institutes -- to become computer programmers, for example."

Ilves went on to say that he saw in the text of the joint statement issued by the six in Prague what he called "an anxiety and quiet desperation" with the process of the membership negotiations.

Of course, officials and politicians inside the EU are aware of the candidates' feelings, not only among the leading six but also among the second-tier candidates -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, and Slovakia.

German Finance Minister Hans Eichel has deplored any attempt to link the Eastward enlargement process with other issues. He has called Spain's linkage "inadmissible" and an attempt at "blackmail."

In Brussels, the EU's commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, has sought to calm the troubled waters by saying that transitional arrangements -- like the proposed labor restrictions -- are meant to help both sides. He said:

"Transitional regulations create no first- or second-class memberships, as some mistakenly think. On the contrary, they give us the necessary flexibility needed to have the best chances to succeed with enlargement, for the EU and for the candidate countries."

In other words, Verheugen was suggesting that the proposed labor restrictions will pacify German and Austrian public opinion, while at the same time allowing the long-term goal of enlargement to go ahead. In fact, the proposed restrictions on the Easterners are not unique. Similar lengthy waiting periods were imposed on Spain and Portugal when they joined the Union in 1986.

In the face of the ongoing row, EU executive Commission President Romano Prodi this week issued a call for unity among member states. He said:

"The key word in all our discussions must be solidarity. Europe must not come a sort of intergovernmental market place in which member states simply haggle over national interests."

In an attempt to break the labor-aid deadlock, Sweden's Prime Minister Goran Persson will tour EU capitals next week. Sweden is currently EU president, and Persson wants a solution to that problem now, so that the upcoming summit in Gothenburg (15-16 June) is not burdened with it.

A quick resolution of the quarrel would clear the way for Sweden to work toward achieving its goal of setting a more precise timetable for the coming enlargement. That's exactly what the candidate countries want. But whether they will get it soon is another matter.