Prague, 4 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With the biggest-ever enlargement of the European Union about to begin, some idealistic impulses of the old member states are beginning to wilt under the weight of impending reality.
A last-moment fit of nerves has led Sweden and the Netherlands to decide on curbs to the expected flow of workers from the accession countries, in particular from Poland and -- in Sweden's case -- the Baltic states.
"The prime minister said the other day that we would be naive to think that we can leave the borders open for all the people from East Europe and then find that they need work only 10 hours a week in Sweden to have all the social benefits."
Even Britain, which is sticking to its open-door policy, is making it harder for the EU newcomers to claim social security. And it is under conservative pressure to tighten up further.
That leaves Ireland among the 15 old EU states that are maintaining the full spirit of the union's provisions for the free movement of people within union borders. Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said in a surprisingly hard-hitting speech last week that he expects "enormous problems" unless Sweden protects itself from uncontrolled immigration from its new EU neighbors. Senior Swedish commentator Anders Junsson of the Stockholm daily "Svenska Dagbladet" says it was long the policy of Persson's Social Democratic government to remain open to workers from the new member states. But that has suddenly changed.
"What has happened is that [the Swedish government] has realized, they have seen, that almost every other [EU] country will have special regulations, and as a result, Sweden cannot be the only country -- perhaps also with Britain and Ireland -- to allow free immigration," Junsson said.
Germany, the EU's largest economy, has said transition arrangements might be in place for up to seven years, the maximum time permitted under agreed EU restrictions. Denmark and Finland are planning initial two-year restrictions, all of which leaves Sweden to fear that it could be flooded with people that might otherwise have gone to those destinations.
As Junnson put it, "The prime minister said the other day that we would be naive to think that we can leave the borders open for all the people from East Europe and then find that they need work only 10 hours a week in Sweden to have all the social benefits."
Persson is planning an initial two-year set of restrictions, with the option to extend them for another three years. In addition, regulations covering availability of social security will be tightened for everybody once free migration is allowed.
Junnson says there is a wry joke making the rounds across the Baltic Sea in Latvia -- that at least it's good that Sweden won't now be taking away all the doctors and nurses needed at home.
In Tallinn, Estonian political analyst Tarmu Tammerk says it all amounts to realism taking hold after the long years of accession negotiations, when the enlargement seemed so far away. "People [here] have been pointing out that the closer Estonia gets to the European Union, the more practical problems will arise with the present member countries about the accession," Tammerk said.
Tammerk says the present member states are becoming increasingly aware that, as the 10 newcomers arrive, they will have new economic competitors within their own ranks.
In Britain, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has rejected placing limits on the arrival of any new EU citizens, saying they are welcome to work and contribute to the well-being of the country.
But nevertheless, in the face of widespread popular opposition to increased immigration, the government has decided to introduce new rules to discourage EU newcomers from traveling to Britain merely to collect welfare benefits. To be eligible for benefits, a citizen of a new EU state will have to prove "habitual residence."
That's not enough, according to the British opposition Conservative Party. The party scoffs at the government's estimates that fewer than 13,000 people per year will want to come to Britain, saying that the closure of other countries will likely increase the flow significantly.