On the previously mentioned subject of Europe’s “free” movement of labor (and the possibility of a massive influx of cheap labor from the east come EU accession time) here’s an article I wrote on the topic in November for Czech and Slovak Construction Journal (for some reason the article’s not posted online).
If you’re too lazy to read the whole thing… It talks about the onset of “EU fatigue” in the east, plus it cites a bunch of studies that discredit the fear of a massive influx of eastern workers wrecking havoc on Western European job markets. And this is really about Polish construction workers already living illegally in Berlin, not Czech IT geeks in London (nor British chefs in Prague). Enjoy.
Confess, for the EU is nigh! Or not.
?Talk to the hand, because the face ain?t listening.?
That?s probably what a number of German politicians would like to have told Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda in September. In an interview with German daily Handelsblatt published Sept. 24, Svoboda urged Germany to let Czech workers move there to work, if they so desire, after the Czech Republic joins the European Union in May. That, of course, is just not going to happen.
The worst charge that one could level at Svoboda for these remarks is wishful thinking. Like most Europhiles in the east, he probably harbors a quixotic vision of fireworks and celebration across the Republic on May 1, when the Czechs? dream of becoming ?full? members of the EU becomes a reality ? at least on paper.
For people, Czechs included, who lived and worked here during the past decade-plus of change, it probably seems a bit odd that an event long imbued with something approaching the weight of the rapture is a mere seven months away. But the formal accession to the EU of eight former Communist satellites, including three small chunks of the former U.S.S.R. ? the Czech and Slovak Republics, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia ? will likely be something of an anti-climax. Few expect anything to actually change on May 1. And on one of the few issues that could potentially alter people?s lives significantly ? the right of new EU citizens to live and work anywhere in the EU ? most current Member States have insisted on a ?transition period? during which they will bar immigration of easterners seeking higher paying jobs and a better lifestyle.
In at least one substantial way, then, the new countries will enter as second-class EU members. (Let?s not even start thinking about adoption of the euro.)
By most economic standards, the countries of the east are already so tied to Western Europe that EU membership is by now just a formality. There was never much substance to the pro-EU advertisements in which Prague shopkeepers boasted that, thanks to the EU, they?d soon be able to open a store in Vienna. The truth is, any Czech person with enough means and ambition can already move to Austria and start a business.
Yet on free movement of labor, the one issue where accession might actually benefit everyday people, Brussels has balked. The ?transition period? could well last beyond the end of the decade. Considering that free movement of labor is considered one of the ?four fundamental freedoms? of the Union and a cornerstone of European integration, this takes more than a little shine off the May accession date.
It?s perhaps telling that this ?transition period? ? as though 15 years of remarkable change to a capitalist economy have not been transition enough ? has elicited so little protest from the east, where publics have grown accustomed to condescension from Brussels. If Svoboda is Don Quixote fighting windmills in Brussels and the Czech Republic his home of La Mancha, the Czech nation can only look on like a bemused Sancho Panza. As New York University?s Jiř? Pehe has pointed out, the euphoria in Eastern Europe once spurred by the ?back to Europe? battle cry of the 1990s has given way to ?EU fatique.? Doubts are mounting about the benefits of joining; for many, Brussels now seems less a guarantor of stability than a faceless authority issueing regulations on how Poles should cook their kielbasa.
Poland and Germany are the key players, says Roland Beck, an analyst with Deutsche Bank Research who recently completed a report on Poland?s political and economic in the run-up to EU accession. German politicians fear a flood of cheap immigrant labor, mainly from Poland. The issue is of special importance for the building industry, since many of the Polish workers who would move to Germany are construction workers. Indeed, a good number of Poles are in Berlin already, working illegally on construction sites there. The fear is that legalizing this workforce would push wages down for Germans, says Beck.
The appeals of easterners like Svoboda are likely to fall on deaf ears, and the ?transition period? may well last until at least 2010, says Beck. ?This decade there is not going to be free movement of Polish workers,? he says. ?Domestic political pressure on that issue is quite strong here in Germany.?
Some northern countries, such as Denmark and Great Britain, will welcome migrants from new EU members immediately upon accession. This may sound bold, but it is of little importance to the labor market. Unskilled labor is the contentious issue, not the educated workers that might be tempted by a job in London. ?In my view, the countries that will allow migration from Poland are not the ones of so much interest. The most interesting market for Polish workers in Germany,? says Beck.
In fact, most indicators discredit fears of a mass exodus of workers from Eastern Europe. Svoboda cited a study on the topic conducted in the Czech Republic that showed only about 19,000 Czechs would travel to Germany seeking jobs ? not a significant number in the scheme of things. Several years ago, a study produced by the European Commission projected that 335,000 easterners would go west ? and of these, only 35% would be employees. Another report suggested this migration would actually raise the Union?s overall GDP enough to offset the costs, provided the moves are not motivated by welfare benefits.
A spate of similar surveys have yielded numbers ranging from 100,000 to 400,000 migrant workers, which would mean that by 2015-2020, the number of migrant workers living in the ?old? EU would amount to only 0.5 to 0.8 percent of the EU?s current population, according to recent report by Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform. This is hardly enough to wreck havoc on the job market, considering an estimated 0.2% of current EU residents are easterners already. And many economists, pointing to the effects of the EU?s last round of enlargement, say even these numbers are played up.
Oddly enough, this debate obscures one important fact: Many of the eastern countries, such as the Czech Republic, actually see more immigration than emigration, with workers from Ukraine and other countries further east moving there in search of higher wages and often working illegally. The EU, again fearful of a larger and more porous eastern boundary, is pushing these countries to enact higher obstacles to such immigration.
It?s a cruel irony. Experts have long blamed the never-ending economic malaise of Western Europe at least in part on the notorious inflexibility of its labor markets. At a moment when one might expect to hear ?let freedom (of labor movement) ring? across the Continent, the EU is actually working hard to stanch the flow of workers across borders.