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EU: Hungary Agrees On Labor Movement

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Luxembourg, 12 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Hungary today became the first candidate country to formally agree to EU restrictions on worker movement after enlargement. Meeting with EU colleagues in Luxembourg, Hungarian Foreign Minister Janosz Martonyi agreed to close the "free movement of people" negotiating chapter.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, speaking on behalf of the EU's current presidency, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, both praised Hungary's achievement.

In her remarks, Lindh emphasized that Hungary as of today has become the first candidate country to close talks on each of the so-called "four freedoms" -- the negotiating chapters establishing the unimpeded movement of people, capital, services, and goods within the entire EU.

Verheugen called today's agreement a "real breakthrough." He added Hungary was now "very likely" to be among the first candidates to close accession talks late next year.

Verheugen said the deal hammered out between the EU and Hungary satisfies both sides:

"I can't be happier seeing that our strategy works and that we have found a way how we can deal with the most sensitive issues. I would like to say that this success was possible because both sides respected the needs and sensitivities on the other side."

Germany and Austria have pressed for a maximum seven-year post-enlargement delay before Eastern workers are allowed access to EU labor markets. The initial delay will last two years. It can then be extended by individual EU members for another three years, and then again for an additional two years.

The EU has offered similar terms to all candidate countries, but has indicated that individual deals might eventually differ slightly. Some candidate countries have said they need more time to work out a deal that would satisfy public opinion at home, and probably will not close the chapter before late autumn.

Hungary's deal with the EU contains three main elements:

First, the EU has promised Hungary a gradual increase in labor market access from the day of accession onwards. Foreign Minister Martonyi said he had been given similar assurances from individual EU members, adding both Sweden and Holland have promised to open their labor markets from the date of enlargement. Austria has indicated it intends to open certain sectors of its labor markets gradually, and Spain has proposed bilateral talks on the issue.

Second, Hungary was granted the right to impose reciprocal curbs on EU workers seeking access to its own labor market. The curbs may not exceed whatever curbs individual EU members apply on Hungarians. To protect itself from excessive inflows of workers from other new EU members, Hungary can make use of so-called safeguard measures, allowing the introduction of curbs should its labor market be in danger of destabilization.

The third part of the deal allows candidates to impose their own curbs on land sales to other EU nationals after enlargement. Hungary accepted a seven-year ban on sales of forestry and agricultural land. It also won an extra concession on foreign farmers, whom the EU wants to be able to buy land immediately after enlargement. According to today's deal, any EU farmer wanting to buy land in Hungary during the first seven years after accession must have kept permanent residence in the country for three years or more.

Martonyi said he was happy with the EU promises, but said it was a basic precept of accession talks that all topics could be revised before the full accession treaty is signed.

The Hungarian minister dismissed suggestions that Hungary's speedy acceptance may have limited other candidate countries' "room to maneuver." Martonyi stressed that accession talks are conducted on an individual basis, and that each candidate would negotiate according to its individual circumstances.

Today's agreement means that Hungary has assumed a commanding lead in enlargement talks, having closed 22 of the 31 chapters of EU law at the center of the talks.

Swedish Foreign Minister Lindh and Verheugen today acknowledged that Hungary has closed a "substantial number" of chapters. They did not say, however, if this meant Hungary would earn a special mention at the EU's upcoming Gothenburg summit.

EU officials have said earlier that candidates can be offered precise accession dates only if they have made "substantial progress" in enlargement negotiations.

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