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Poland: Discussion With EU Leaders To Center On Free Labor Movement

Two leading EU officials are visiting Poland today (8 March) for talks on that country's accession to the Union. One key difficulty between the two sides concerns the free movement of labor. Poland, the largest of the candidate-member countries, wants its citizens to be able to move westward as soon as Poland becomes a member -- possibly as soon as 2004. However, fearing mass migration of cheap labor, neighboring Germany foresees a long transition period before Polish workers would be entitled to live and work in "old" EU member states. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the issues.

Prague, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- EU Commission President Romano Prodi and Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen travel to Poland today with no clear solution in hand on the vexed question of free movement of labor.

The question of how soon Poles will be able to live and work freely in the rest of the EU once their country joins is expected to dominate discussions.

If Prodi can't answer that question, he can at least tell his hosts that there has been movement on the issue, which is one of the most sensitive in the entire negotiation process. The Commission announced yesterday (7 March) that it's sending a working paper to member states with the aim of achieving a common EU position on free movement of labor by early April. Warsaw and the other Eastern candidates will then know where they stand.

The Poles are particularly annoyed by the prospect of their nationals having to wait seven years to live and work legally in the present EU countries. That at any rate is Germany's demand. Berlin is having to cope with persistent high unemployment in its own eastern laender (states) and does not want a flood of Polish or other Eastern workers making the situation worse.

Warsaw has not been pacified by EU officials who recall that Portugal and Spain, when they became EU members in the 1980s, faced a similar 6-year delay before their citizens gained the automatic right to move to other EU countries.

As analyst Mike Emerson of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies puts it, the general Polish negotiating strategy aims to be "decisive and simple." He says that Poland is asking for no delays from Brussels on its behalf and is expecting none from the EU. Further, Emerson says talk of a stampede westward might be exaggerated:

"You can also say, in support of the [Polish] position, that the developments in Poland economically are sufficiently robustly dynamic that the prospect of waves of Polish migrants seems to be diminishing."

He says analysts are not convinced there will be a large-scale Polish migration, especially considering there are vast numbers of Poles working informally in Western Europe already. And he says demand for labor in Western Europe is set to grow sharply because of aging populations there:

"The debate about immigration in general is beginning to change in Europe. It must change in any case because of the demographics of the situation and the pressures for a loosening-up of formerly very restrictive, zero-immigration policies. That is already happening."

However, he expresses some doubt about whether this underlying trend toward more liberal immigration policies can make itself felt sufficiently to influence the outcome of the Polish-EU membership talks over the next 18 months.

The EU Commission's working paper on free movement of labor sets out five options for regulating the inflow of Easterners after EU enlargement.

The options range from allowing complete freedom of movement for workers from the candidate countries as soon as they have joined, to various restrictions imposed either by individual member states or by the EU as a whole. Another option would keep in place current restrictions for a defined period. That's the solution favored by Germany.

The Commission working paper also asserts that the impact of migration from the East will likely be much less than some EU governments fear.

Krassen Stanchev, the head of the Bulgarian Institute for Market Economy, told RFE/RL that the movement westward will depend largely on how good or bad conditions are in Eastern countries. He says:

"Seven times more Bulgarians than Hungarians applied [recently] for the German equivalent of the U.S. [immigration] green card, that is, seven times more computer and software experts applied, but that is mostly because of the better conditions for those professions which exist in Hungary [than in Bulgaria].

Stanchev says the prospect of free movement of labor westward is an important factor for improving what might be called social morale in his country. He says:

"People in Bulgaria would like better opportunities to sell their skills, and they also need the opportunity to confront this higher demand for better skills, and to see that their priority must be education, education, and education."

Stanchev also notes the growing demand for labor in the EU. He says labor is a form of capital and that free movement of capital is a desirable thing.