One return to the West, please

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Series Details Vol.12, No.16, 27.4.06
Publication Date 27/04/2006
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In early 2004, as the EU stood on the threshold of the most important enlargement of its 50-year history, you couldn't pick up a mainstream western European newspaper without reading a scare story about an imminent invasion of cheap labour from the east.

Well-paid western jobs are under threat, the scaremongers screamed. We are all going to be forced onto the employment scrapheap by an insidious army of low-cost Polish plumbers, they bellowed. The arguments were so convincing that most EU governments felt obliged to ride roughshod over the Union's founding principle of free movement of workers. Twelve of the then 15 EU member states slapped temporary restrictions on the right of citizens from the Union's new countries to seek employment on their territories. In most cases those restrictions are still in place today. This March Germany even announced it would be extending curbs on free movement for eastern Europeans until 2009. But three EU countries - the UK, Ireland and Sweden - did not revoke the right of new Union citizens to work on their territories and their experiences over the past two years appear to suggest that a rather more complex pattern of east-west labour flows is emerging in the new EU than the doomsday scenarios predicted by the panic merchants.

There is no question that a huge number of eastern Europeans have moved west to find work, especially to the UK and Ireland. The latest figures from the UK government show that 345,000 eastern Europeans have registered to work in the country since 1 May 2004. Experts in London add that around a third of these people were in the UK prior to enlargement. The figures for Ireland are proportionally even more impressive.

More than 120,000 eastern Europeans are now registered there, a much higher percentage of new European citizens than in the UK as Ireland only has a total population of just over 4 million people compared to the 60m inhabitants of its nearest European neighbour. But, say the experts, these people still represent a relatively small proportion of the total working population - around 5% in Ireland and less than 0.5% in the UK. And in both countries they have been a veritable boon for national economies.

A recent study by the Brussels-based European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) found that eastern Europeans working in the UK generated an estimated EUR 736 million for the national economy in the 12 months following May 2004, while putting very little strain on state coffers. More than 97% of eastern Europeans in the UK are in full time employment and claim no state benefits. But what is even more interesting is increasing evidence that east Europeans heading west to work are often buying return tickets.

"The fact that people are entering a country does not necessarily mean they are settling there permanently," explains Jean-Christophe Dumont, an immigration expert at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

"People appear to be far more mobile today, especially young people and students," he adds.

ECAS head Tony Venables says he agrees with this analysis, arguing that for many east Europeans, heading west is seen as a "temporary option, a stepping stone to improve your situation back home". Other experts point out that the advent of low-cost airlines means eastern European workers can easily keep up links with their home countries while working in the west.

The most recent data from the UK would certainly seem to bear out such arguments. In its latest Accession Monitoring Report the UK's Home Office found that most east Europeans living in the country were young and single. Some 83% of workers are aged between 18 and 34 and 94% have no dependants living with them. Anyone who has been served in a London bar or restaurant in the last two years is unlikely to find these figures surprising. Back in the new member states themselves there is increasing evidence that people are choosing to return home to settle after a period working in the west.

Andras Dinnyes is one of Hungary's most respected scientists. An expert on cloning, he has worked all over the world, including a stint at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh that developed Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep. Thanks to his reputation and international network of contacts he could relatively easily have landed a very well paid job in the US, Japan or western Europe. But the 39-year-old has decided to return to Hungary and set up home with his partner and daughter in the city of G�d�ll�, near Budapest, where he heads a team of researchers at the respected Agricultural Biotechnology Centre.

"I travelled a great deal when I was younger and I loved it," he says. "But I always knew I would come back to Hungary eventually and I am absolutely convinced I made the right decision," he adds.

It's not hard to see why Dinnyes made the choice he did. G�d�ll� is a pleasant, leafy, historic town, a 20 minute-drive from one of the most vibrant capital cities in Europe. He lives in a large, light, airy turn of the century house with a decent sized garden in a country where the cost of living is still, in general, significantly lower than in much of western Europe.

Mara Pilmane, a 43-year-old senior pathologist at the Stradins University in the Latvian capital Riga, tells a similar story. After her country unilaterally declared its independence from its mighty Soviet neighbour in 1991, Pilmane was eager to travel abroad to broaden her scientific and personal horizons. She worked for a while at Lund university in Sweden and in Australia and, like Dinnyes, said she wouldn't have missed the experiences for the world. But at the same time it was always clear to Pilmane that her home was and always would be Latvia. "It's my nice green country, why would I want to go anywhere else?" she says.

  • Simon Coss is a freelance journalist based in Rennes.

Article takes a look at migratory flow of workers from the new EU Member States from Central and Eastern Europe to countries of the EU-15 which did not impose restrictions on access to their labour markets.
Article is part of a European Voice Special Report, 'EU enlargement'.

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ECAS: Publications: Report on the free movement of workers in the EU-25. Who's afraid of EU enlargement? September 2005

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