EU Enlargement European Doors Kept Closed for Romanian and Bulgarian Workers

Romanians and Bulgarians are still not seen as full-fledged citizens of the European Union. Many member states continue to keep them out of their job markets, particularly now that their economies are falling into recession.
Von Annemarie Kas

A large number of European Union countries, including the Netherlands, will continue to restrict labor market access for citizens of recent EU newcomers Romania and Bulgaria, says a European Commission review published on Thursday. The older EU member states are worried about the loss of job opportunities and they are using the current financial crisis as an argument for protecting their job markets longer. "First we have to protect jobs for our own workers," Phil Woolas, British minister of state for borders and immigration, said in a statement.

The concern voiced by Woolas has been present since 10 countries, including Poland, joined the bloc in 2004. Under the terms of the Eastern European countries' accession to the EU, Western Europe countries were allowed to limit access to there labor markets for up to seven years. The same conditions were applied to Romania and Bulgaria when they joined in 2007. Restrictions were lifted for Polish workers in most member states in 2007 (though they remain in effect in Germany). Spain, Portugal, Greece, Hungary and Denmark will open their job markets to Romanians and Bulgarians in 2009.

Most of the EU countries which are maintaining (partial) restrictions to their job markets are among the original members of the EU -- countries like Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Dutch Social Affairs Minister Piet Hein Donner (of the conservative Christian Democrats) has also decided to keep the borders closed because of uncertainty in the economic downturn. A parliamentary majority supported him.

According to the enlargement agreement, all EU member states will have to fully open their labor markets to Romanians and Bulgarians by 2012, unless there is evidence of a "serious disturbance" to the labor market. Until then there are considerable differences in each country's restrictions. Many countries open their job markets in sectors with a shortage of workers, like agriculture and horticulture. The Dutch parliament is worried about increasing unemployment in sectors suffering from the financial situation, like construction and industry.


The fear that the arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians will lead to extra job losses is unfounded, the European Commission argues on the basis of research presented in November of last year. Economic migrants from countries which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, have not led to serious disturbances in the labor markets of other EU countries. In fact they have contributed to economic growth without pushing out local workers or depressing wages, says the Commission. The Commission statement released on Thursday encourages countries to remove the restrictions as soon as possible.

In the Netherlands too the effects of economic migration from Eastern Europe are "on average marginal", says Arjan Heyma of Amsterdam research agency SEO which studies the impact of Eastern Europeans on the Dutch economy. "Only in agriculture is there evidence of a slight depression in wages," he says.

Even the flood of Romanians and Bulgarians which political parties claim to fear is unlikely. Look at the Poles, says Heyma. "The largest group of Poles was already here before the restrictions were lifted." If Romanians and Bulgarians follow the same pattern, a small number can be expected when the labor market is opened. Still, it will be far fewer than the number who arrived after accession to the EU, which was small in the Netherlands anyway.

The closed job market for Romanians and Bulgarians plays into exploitation, says Gerlof Roubos, director of the Association of International Employment Officers. "The crisis puts pressure on prices in the temporary employment world. It's then attractive to hire cheap Romanians and Bulgarians," he says. "Because the income of those who work here illegally is uncertain, they can't put up much resistance."

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