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Germany: Foreign Minister Says Labor Restrictions Won't Harm EU Expansion

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer acknowledges that his country wants to delay the admittance of East European workers after the European Union begins expanding eastward. But Fischer says he sees enough room for flexibility to avoid damaging the enlargement process as a whole.

RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas discussed a range of enlargement issues with Fischer yesterday (5 February) in Berlin. He reports that Fischer sees a "deepening" in relations among EU members as necessary for enlargement to proceed. Germany also sees a natural role for regional groupings -- a view that could reinforce candidate member fears that states would be admitted according to their region and not on the basis of individual merit.

Berlin, 6 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Germany sees itself as a leader within the European Union on the issue of expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.

Yet, at the same time, both Germany and EU-member Austria are trying to build in temporary restrictions on the free movement of labor that contradict one of the leading tenets of EU membership -- that citizens can live and work where they want.

In an interview with RFE/RL yesterday in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer acknowledged that his country is seeking a seven-year restriction on the free movement of labor. But he says Germany would be what he describes as "flexible" during this period and would not allow the restriction to harm the enlargement process.

"We are very flexible at the moment when this transition period for seven years is accepted. What we fear -- we have to deal with the fears here inside of Germany. And if these fears are only fears, then I think we are very flexible within the transition period to change our opinion. We are not interested [in blocking] or creat[ing] trouble because Germany has an interest [in expansion]. I mean, we are the main driver for enlargement. But we have to deal with fears within our own people and therefore I think it's very rational to have a transitional period, but we are very flexible within these transitional periods."

Fischer discussed the results of the 2 February bilateral summit at which Franco-German aims for the EU were described as both widening the EU to take on new members and deepening integration among members. Some say these aims are contradictory and could come into conflict at some stage in the future.

Fischer tells our correspondent the aims are not contradictory. He says perspective members want to join an effective union, and for that to happen, institutional reforms -- a deepening, as he calls it -- will have to occur.

"No. Everybody has an interest in the reunification of Europe -- this means enlargement. We want to [have] an enlarged Europe, we cannot have the European Union reduced to Western Europe. This was an artificial result of the end of the Second World War and of the system of Yalta. Now the Cold War is over and the whole [of] Europe is back at the stage of present politics and the answer of the European Union is enlargement.

"Enlargement means that, for example, Estonia will not join a union that is not able to act. Estonia has interests as a nation, and these interests mean that they want to join an active union which is able to act, so we must reform the institutions of an enlarged union. The European Union started with six member states and will have -- at the end of enlargement -- 27 [members]. So we need some reform of the institutions, we need to adapt the possibilities of the institutions to the new realities. This is the deepening. It will not be very easy. But at the end I am very optimistic -- because reality will be our teacher -- that we will be successful."

Fischer also discussed the controversial issue of regional blocs and fears among some candidate members that the EU will admit members on the basis of their regional position, and not on the basis of individual merit.

Fischer was asked whether his country feels it would be natural or advantageous to have the Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary), for example, join the EU together, and the three Baltic states together.

The foreign minister stressed the importance of regional blocs but didn't directly address the issue of whether regional blocs would play a role in the expansion process.

"I think within an enlarged EU, regional groups will be very, very important and I don't see this as directed against other regions. But it's obvious that the Mediterranean has regional problems, that the member states around the Baltic Sea also have regional problems. Or, for example, the Western member states will have other regional problems. So, from our point of view, in an enlarged union, a regional approach is a contribution [to] a well-organized European Union. I think it's more important inside an enlarged Union than today -- therefore I think the [EU's] Northern Dimension [strategy], the Baltic Sea approach, will create great opportunities in an enlarged union."