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EU: Candidate Consensus Appears To Be Cracking

  • Ahto Lobjakas

An unstated agreement among EU candidate states not to compete with each other for Brussels' favor appears to be cracking. At recent accession talks in Brussels, the Czech Republic accepted an EU demand to restrict labor movement for seven years after enlargement. But RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports that in return, Prague won the right to impose curbs of its own to restrict labor from other new member states like Poland.

Brussels, 29 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first cracks are appearing in the resolve of EU candidate countries to suppress their private interests in favor of presenting a united front.

Diplomats at accession talks in Brussels on 26 October point the finger at the Czech Republic, after Prague negotiated a better deal on the issue of the "free movement of persons" than Hungary, Slovakia, and Latvia earlier this year.

The "free movement of persons" chapter is the most controversial on the table so far. Fearing a mass influx of Eastern workers after enlargement, Germany and Austria have pivoted the EU to demand a transitional period of up to seven years during which existing members could continue to close their borders to workers from new members.

Candidates were quick to note from the beginning that the EU position says nothing about measures the new members might want to apply to workers from current members. The EU position also doesn't address the issue of new members restricting labor coming from other new members. The main problem here is seen to be Poland, the largest of the candidate countries. With German borders closed to Polish workers, the other Central European candidates fear an exodus of Poles could swamp their own relatively better-off labor markets.

To tackle this, Hungary, Slovakia, and Latvia -- who wrapped up talks on worker movement before the summer break -- negotiated so-called "safeguard clauses" enabling them to invoke restrictions on workers from other new members, but only if a current EU member imposes restrictions on the particular new member country first.

The deal agreed on 26 October by the Czech Republic goes a step further, allowing Prague to restrict inflows of labor from other new members at its own discretion.

Pavel Telicka, the Czech Republic's chief negotiator, rejected criticism that the measure was intended for use against specific countries -- like Poland, for instance -- but appeared to admit his government felt uneasy about other, poorer candidate countries.

Telicka says: "It would be unfortunate, I think, if that issue that we have negotiated would be seen as a measure against someone. No, this is a measure which can be utilized if [there's a need] to take care of a certain situation in a certain region in a certain profession if other [current EU member] countries would not apply measures to that specific [new member] country. And I think that no one can blame us if we would say that maybe due to restructuring a certain region in the future we would see also non-language-barrier inflow of labor not [helping] the situation there."

Privately, diplomats from a number of leading candidate countries offered critical comments on the concessions won by the Czech side -- which are automatically extended to all other candidates that accept the EU's demands on the issue of worker movement.

Most described the Czech deal as unnecessary, contributing to mutual mistrust among the candidates. One diplomat indicated that the earlier deal agreed by Hungary, Slovakia, and Latvia would in practice have afforded the Czech labor market more than sufficient protection, without angering Poland and possibly others. The requirement that restrictions against other new members can only be invoked if current member states do it first is a formality, the diplomat said, as labor markets in current, more affluent member countries were guaranteed to react to any possible pressures first in any case.

One candidate diplomat pointed out that while Brussels may be looking to generate splits among candidates that it can exploit to its own advantage, the EU might have done itself a disservice by recognizing that candidates who concluded talks on labor movement earlier could have achieved more if they had held out longer.

Poland's chief negotiator, Jan Truszczynski, questioned the necessity for internal restrictions among current candidates after enlargement, saying he was convinced that migration pressures emanating from Poland would remain low. His Estonian colleague, Alar Streimann, said that as "free worker movement" was one of the core freedoms of the EU, he doubted it was "useful" for candidates -- who have earlier all spoken out in principle against any transitional delays -- to turn the EU demands against each other.