Common sense prevails after battles over labour access

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Series Details Vol.7, No.23, 7.6.01, p18
Publication Date 07/06/2001
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Date: 07/06/01

By John Shelley

DOOM merchants have for months, if not years, been warning that negotiations on the free movement of workers will be among the most difficult of enlargement talks - with the potential to de-rail the whole process. Judging by recent signs, they were wrong.

We were supposed to be facing deadlock, with Germany and Austria on one side determined to prevent floods of cheap immigrant labour putting their own citizens out of work.

On the other side were to be the applicant countries, backed by the Spanish, saying there was not really any point in joining the EU if their citizens would not be granted one of the most basic rights of membership.

The reality is that it has been in everyone's interest to make a fuss, but not really in anyone's to actually block the negotiations when the crunch time comes.

Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen set the tone when he launched the Commission's eminently reasonable proposals on the issue in April.

Eastern and central European countries should not be given full free movement rights immediately on accession, he said. Rather there should be a five-year transitional period, with a flexible approach that allows member states to scrap the ban early or add a couple of years if they felt their jobs markets were seriously threatened.

Still commentators were spoiling for a fight - and it briefly looked like they were going to get one with Spain and Germany squaring up to each other.

Madrid, the applicants' champion, was threatening to block a long transition period, while Germany and Austria would not accept anything less than the five-plus-two formula proposed by Verheugen.

But the Spanish were only really interested in making a bit of noise so others would sit up and listen when the regional aid negotiations begin and it starts complaining that it will lose its generous slice of the structural funds cake when the much poorer applicants join the EU.

And Madrid's demand - a link in the enlargement chapter to the one on regional aid - was never a possibility anyway.

As Swedish premier Göran Persson said: "We must make it clear that linkages between the free movement of labour and future budget discussions cannot be allowed. If we allowed this to happen others could do something similar."

Germany similarly needed to put up a show to convince its citizens that it was not a soft touch on immigration. But, when it comes to it, Berlin does not really have that much to play for either.

Even if the Germans managed to get a 20-year transition period, the candidate countries' prosperity levels relative to the EU will probably not be that much better. Also, a transition period of at least five years puts things off long enough for a later government to have to deal with the issue.

It was no real surprise then when the two sides overcame their differences and, last week, ambassadors agreed the EU's common negotiating position for talks with applicants.

These negotiations, now under way, may turn out to be more difficult than the preliminary spats. However, while applicant governments officially insist there should be no transition periods, even they do not seriously think this can happen.

Portugal and Spain had to endure a wait on worker movement rights when they joined and the wage gap between the two countries and France was nowhere near as great as that between, say, Austria and Slovakia.

This was supposed to be the first really difficult negotiation chapter to get under way. If it turns out to be easier than anticipated it could bode well for the other tricky ones to come next year.

Article forms part of a survey on enlargement.

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Countries / Regions