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EU: Commission Proposes Seven-Year Ban On New Member Workers

Brussels, 11 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission said today it recommends a maximum seven-year ban on candidate workers entering the present EU after enlargement.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said the proposal -- which must be approved by the 15 EU member-governments -- offers a flexible solution that takes into account the interests of both members and candidates.

Germany and Austria have expressed the strongest concerns about a possible influx of Eastern European workers after enlargement. Both have demanded a seven-year delay of Eastern access to their labor markets.

All candidate countries have so far rejected any restrictions on the access of their workers to EU labor markets after enlargement.

According to the Commission's proposal today, EU-wide freedom of worker movement would not extend to candidate countries before five years after enlargement. After the five-year period, member countries could individually extend the restriction for a further two years.

Commissioner Verheugen said today the Commission thought the latter development unlikely, hinting also that the first wave of enlargement could take place as soon as 2004.

"The [European] Commission is of the opinion that the second element is very theoretical - the Commission does not believe it will actually enter into force. We're talking here about the years 2009 or 2010. It is then that such restrictions could apply. But in order to take into account the political situation in some member countries, the Commission considers this [proposal] the right approach."

The Commission proposal would allow EU members that are less worried about worker influx from the East to relax national restrictions on a bilateral basis. In other words, more remote countries like Spain or Portugal could open their borders to workers from new members immediately after enlargement. Verheugen said countries would be "encouraged" to do this.

The Commission proposal also provides for a review of restrictions on candidate worker movement two years after enlargement. But any EU-wide shortening of the restrictions would have to be approved by all current member states.

EU member-states are expected to approve the Commission's proposal -- the central positions of which are expected to remain unchanged -- by late June.

Talks between the EU and candidates should be wrapped up before the end of the year. Although the EU's common position is in principle negotiable, it is unlikely that candidates could force the current members to offer significant concessions. More likely, as senior Commission figures have indicated, the EU will in return agree to lengthy transition requests from candidates like Poland and Hungary on the sale of land to foreigners.

The conclusion of talks could be delayed if some members, notably Greece, Portugal, and Spain, succeed in tying the issue of worker movement into a "package" with issues like regional aid within the EU, of which they are major recipients. Spain and Portugal have so far supported more lenient restrictions on Eastern workers -- less out of principle than from a desire to improve their bargaining positions in other issues.

Today's proposal only applies to Eastern European candidate countries -- and not to candidates Cyprus or Malta. It is probable that Malta will request transitional restrictions of its own on workers coming from the rest of the EU.

It remains unclear at this stage how candidate countries themselves will solve the issue of worker movement between them after enlargement. This and the issue of EU worker access to candidate labor markets will remain the subject of negotiations expected to start after EU member-governments endorse today's proposal.