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EU: Commission Opposes Probation For New Members

One proposal for managing EU enlargement has been to give new member states a lesser status, without the full rights of older members, during what would be called a transitional period. But this week, an EU commissioner came out against that plan. Nikola Krastev of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service reports.

Prague, 25 February (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission says it is opposed to the introduction of proposed "transitional periods" for new members of the European Union.

Some current EU members -- nervous that their workers might face competition from cheaper East European labor when the EU expands -- had been lobbying for restrictions on the free movement of workers from new members. The proposed restrictions would apply in new member states for the first five to ten years.

According to polls, Germany, Austria, and Denmark are among the countries where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise. But as the enlargement of the EU draws nearer, those populist feelings are expected to increase in other parts of the union as well.

In Brussels this week, Frits Bolkestein, the EU commissioner for the single market, acknowledged that some member countries were proposing that East European workers should face restrictions on where they work even after their countries join the EU.

But Jonathan Todd, a spokesperson for Bolkestein, told RFE/RL that the commission opposes the introduction of transitional periods for new members.

"The commission does not want any restrictions, it does not want any transitional period. The commission wants single market rules on free movement of labor to be applicable to the new member states, and to the EU, from the date of accession. That is our official position. What Mr. Bolkestein was saying the other day was simply that we should not give in to pressure from some member states to have long transitional periods. And if there were to be any transitional periods, they should be as short as possible."

Todd denied rumors that there is division on the subject within the commission.

While some European politicians have been speaking openly of their support for transitional periods, the European Commission's position is that imposing such a status on new members would mean falling short of the commission's treasured ideal that enlargement should bring mutual benefits. Such a status would make new member states, in effect, second-class participants in the union.

The British newspaper "Financial Times" (Feb. 22) quotes commission officials as saying transition periods are an option, but that they could be applied to individual labor sectors through quota arrangements.

But are the potential workers from Eastern and Central Europe a true menace to the prosperity of their wealthier Western neighbors?

Employers in Spain and France report a pressing need for competent employees willing to accept low wages. In those countries, laborers from Eastern Europe would be filling a gap not filled by local, Western workers.

And in Germany, when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced this week that he plans to liberalize Germany's strict immigration laws and recruit computer experts from abroad, some German media welcomed the move. They said the influx of skilled foreign workers would create jobs for everyone in the economy.

If these trends hold, then in a united Europe, the free movement of skilled workers should prove more of a benefit than a threat.