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EU: Verheugen Defends Commission's Labor Market Restrictions

As he begins a two-day visit to Estonia today, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen faces a somewhat daunting task. He needs to convince leaders in Estonia and other EU candidate countries that his recent proposal to restrict candidate access to EU labor markets for up to seven years after enlargement is a workable solution to a sensitive issue. Verheugen recently outlined some of his arguments in an interview with RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas.

Brussels, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since last week, when Guenter Verheugen persuaded the European Commission to adopt a proposal to bar Eastern workers from EU labor markets for up to seven years after enlargement, his popularity in candidate countries has suffered markedly.

Candidates accuse him of pandering to German and Austrian interests. Both EU members, fearing a massive influx of Eastern workers, have been demanding precisely the seven-year transition period suggested by the European Commission. Candidate-states complain that the proposal threatens to deny them one of the "core freedoms" enjoyed by every EU citizen in the present 15 member states -- the freedom to work and live where they want.

Verheugen rejects charges of double standards. He says the commission simply had no realistic alternative but to take into account the concerns of German and Austrian citizens.

"Well, certainly there was an alternative. The alternative was to wait until the 15 member states [of the EU] are ready to implement the full 'acquis' [that is, all EU rules and regulations] -- in this case, [that relating to] the free movement of workers. Then of course enlargement would start in the year 2010 or 2011. And that is certainly too late and would not change the situation for the [Eastern] workers."

Verheugen believes fears of a mass immigration from the East are exaggerated, and that as concerns subside, the curbs on worker movement could be shortened.

That is why, he says, the commission has proposed that the initial five-year transition period be reviewed after two years. Verheugen says he is sure that even if the five-year ban is allowed to run its course, no EU member would take advantage of the extra two-year extension clause also proposed by the commission.

Trying to deflect blame from the commission, Verheugen suggests that the onus is now on EU member states to prove they are willing to accommodate new members. He points out that his proposal only deals with common EU law. Individual member states remain free to open their borders to East European workers when they see fit.

"The proposal that the commission made is a very flexible one and obviously in some candidate countries public opinion missed the point. The labor markets of the [EU] member states remain open -- or can be opened if member states want to do that. And there's no reason to believe that there is no chance for Estonian workers [for example] to work in member states of the European Union. The only thing that we [the commission] have proposed is that the full implementation of the acquis everywhere would happen only five years or seven years [after enlargement]."

Verheugen dismisses suggestions that the commission is preparing a so-called "package deal," where the EU would offer new members concessions in other areas to compensate for an initial ban on worker movement. Yet he indicates that this may be the direction negotiations will move once candidates accept that the EU's demands on labor movement are not negotiable.

"During the [current] Swedish presidency, [the EU has] to find negotiating positions for three very important areas where transitional periods are requested: it is free movement of workers, free movement of capital, particularly purchase of land and environment. According to our 'road map,' we can and will negotiate these three issues in parallel. I'll give you one example. Poland, for instance, has requested a transitional period for the purchase [by foreigners] of agricultural land and [that used for] forestry of 18 years. If you compare seven years maximum length for free movement of workers and 18 years for free movement of capital [and] purchase of land -- which is also part of the [EU's] internal market [freedoms] -- then I think the fact that we negotiate these chapters in parallel can help us find solutions."

Verheugen says he is certain that the controversy will not lead to a breakdown of the enlargement process. He is confident that a mutually satisfactory compromise can be found because, he says, leaders in candidate countries have long been aware of the German and Austrian demands -- as well as the commission's need to accommodate them.