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EU: Leading Candidates Willing To Accept Labor Movement Curbs

Brussels, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Leading European Union candidate countries indicated today they are ready to accept the EU request for a maximum seven-year ban on the movement of Eastern European workers after expansion.

Negotiators from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia met EU officials in Brussels today to discuss worker movement and other outstanding chapters of EU regulations.

At the request of Germany and Austria, the EU position on labor movement stipulates that the freedom of worker movement enjoyed by all EU citizens does not take effect until up to seven years after enlargement. An initial two-year ban would be reviewed after two years, and again after five years.

Individual EU member countries, however, are still free to open their labor markets to candidate workers on a bilateral basis from the day of the first accessions.

Hungary appeared the keenest today to press ahead with negotiations. Hungary's chief negotiator Endre Juhasz said he did not rule out closing talks on the labor movement chapter on 12 June, when EU foreign ministers meet their candidate counterparts in Luxembourg.

Juhasz said that, while the EU's position is a disappointment to candidates, the curbs were a political reality that had to be accepted.

"Although we are not convinced about the economic and social need for a transitional arrangement, we could accept the EU proposal as it is without any change."

But according to Juhasz, Hungary's acceptance of the EU's terms had two conditions. The first is that the 15 EU members must clearly specify how long and to what degree they plan to take advantage of the curbs. Secondly, Juhasz said, Hungary must be allowed to introduce similar measures against EU citizens.

Juhasz described the EU position as a "fragile construction," and said it was not in the interests of either the EU or candidates to restart the debate.

Spain and Portugal blocked agreement on the position within the EU until 30 May. They demanded assurances that the accession of the poorer candidate countries would not lead to a decrease in the development aid they currently receive from the EU. Spain gets more than 60 percent of the approximately 30 billion euros that make up the EU's annual development aid budget.

The Czech, Estonian, and Polish negotiators also said the EU position would need further study, but would be an acceptable starting point for talks.

Although they accepted the inevitability of restrictions on labor movement, some negotiators sharply criticized the way the EU position justified the curbs by citing "political sensitivities" in certain member countries.

Jan Telicka, the Czech negotiator, was particularly scathing in his comments. He said that when candidates apply for transitional periods in other fields, the EU demands the requests should be accompanied by a thorough explanation of their necessity, including their possible economic and social implications.

The Czech Republic today broke new ground, becoming the first Central European applicant to close talks on the chapter entitled "free movement of capital." Together with Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, the Czech Republic had asked for long transition periods for sales of agricultural land and secondary residences to foreigners after accession.

Telicka said the Czech Republic accepted the EU's offer of a seven-year transition period for the sale of land, although Prague had originally asked for a 10-year delay.

The EU's offer is widely seen as a compensatory gesture for the curbs it is seeking to impose on labor movement.

Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovenia have already closed talks on the free movement of capital without asking for any delays on land or property sales. Latvia -- still to conclude talks on the chapter -- has also not asked for delays or transition periods.

The Czech Republic, Estonia, and Hungary today also closed talks on the difficult environmental chapter, becoming -- along with Slovenia -- the only candidate countries to have done so thus far.

After today's round of talks, Cyprus retains a slender lead among candidates, having closed 21 of the 31 chapters of the EU regulations that form the substance of accession talks. Slovenia has closed 20 chapters, Estonia and Hungary 19, and the Czech Republic 18. Poland brings up the rear in the leading group with 16, but has already been caught by second-wave countries Malta and Slovakia, both also with 16. Lithuania has closed 15 chapters, Latvia 13, Bulgaria nine, and Romania six.