Making enlargement work

Series Title
Series Details Vol 7, No.15, 12.4.01, p11 (editorial)
Publication Date 12/04/2001
Content Type

Date: 12/04/01

THE reaction from the capitals of the ten central and east European countries bidding to join the EU to news that the Commission has recommended a delay of at least five years before member states open their labour markets is easy to predict.

They will argue that the length of time their citizens could be denied one of the fundamental rights of Union membership - to seek work in another member state - is excessive and politically motivated to address concern about public opinion in Germany and, to a lesser extent, Austria.

Most analyses of potential post-enlargement labour flows indicate that around 300,000 people will leave their homes in the current candidate countries to seek work in the existing member states. But the problem will affect Germany more than any other country, which makes it hard to argue for EU-wide rules on the free movement of labour. As Enlargement Commissioner G√ľnter Verheugen has pointed out, member states that do not anticipate a problem can scrap labour market restrictions at any time if they want to plug labour shortages in certain sectors.

So, why call for a minimum period of five years across the Union which will probably not be needed?

The answer, of course, is that the Commission is trying to reassure the German public that enlargement will not lead to a massive influx of cheap labour, undercutting wages and employment rights.

While this seems unjust in terms of the likely effect on the EU labour market - many possible emigrants are already working in the Union semi-legally - there is an important development which should not be overlooked. This week Poland's chief negotiator Jan Kulakowski called on the Union to show flexibility in talks, and to start a debate on difficult issues such as agriculture and regional aid in order to speed up the enlargement process.

By taking a clear position on the question of free movement of workers, the EU executive has paved the way for member states to show their hands on this and other key questions. In the forthcoming debate on the Commission's proposal Union governments will start making their own demands in order to approve what is basically a major concession to Germany. Depending on the outcome of those deliberations the applicant states will be able to haggle over the length of bans on foreigners buying their farmland.

Kulakowski was right to call for an early debate on the difficult issues. But the candidates should not overlook the fact that a very real and tough debate will take place before the summer. And that can only help progress in the enlargement process, which is meant to be everyone's goal.

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