New EU members — in name only

To my new colleagues at Fistful, I’d like to offer an apology for being silent lately. I’ve taken over back-of-the-house management duties at the restaurant I co-own in Prague, Tulip Cafe and, well, managing a restaurant is about as much work as you’d imagine, and then some.

The kitchen at Tulip is truly a cultural melting pot: currently we have three people helping out there, one British, one Australian and one Russian, and the lingua franca is generally Czech. And in that regard, I recently discovered that the future of my little business is largely in the hands of Tony Blair.

Call it the old bait-and-switch: Despite widespread reluctance to jump onto a train whose destination is basically unknown, Eastern Europeans voted overwhelmingly to join the EU last year. One of the reasons was the idea of “free movement of labor,” which is supposedly one of the fundamental freedoms of the EU. As it turns out, this “freedom” is a bit of a sham for the easterners, as countries like Germany and Austria, fearing a flood of cheap labor from the east, have instituted “transition periods” (lasting beyond 2010 in some cases) severely regulation the rights of easterners to work in those countries.

Now, it turns out the Netherlands has decided to do the same thing; the Czech press is not impressed, unsurprisingly. “Mind the barbarians, they have uprooted Rome,” mocks a columnist in Mlada fronta Dnes.

Today, The Guardian reports that Tony Blair is holding an “EU migration brainstorm” after sending mixed signals on the issue. (Britain is one of the few countries that had pledged to open its labor markets to the new EU entrants; the thorny question, is seems, is the benefits system, and the prevention of “benefits tourism.”)

In terms of the big picture, there’s plenty to be said here, and I’d like to keep this post short in the interest of prompting discussion. I’m personally surprised that there’s not more outrage that this is even under discussion a mere 10 weeks ahead of the May 1 accession day. Am I wrong, or should citizens of EU members states be considered EU citizens, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto? For all this discussion of a “two-tiered Europe,” few seem to have noticed that it’s exactly what we’re getting on May 1.

From a personal viewpoint, I’m considering hiring a Briton to be a our full-time chef (Czech cooking school not being any place to learn about how to prepare good food), and a British decision to curb EU migration will likely trigger reciprocal measures by the Czech government, which means that a Londoner who wants to move to Prague to be with his Czech girlfriend and find work — as, say, a chef in a Czech restaurant — will be out of luck. Which means my restaurant could be stuck with a guy who puts ketchup in spaghetti sauce.

11 thoughts on “New EU members — in name only

  1. Scott,

    I suppose a gradual transition is the most useful way to go about it when the differences of two parts to be merged are too significant. Apruptly mixing hot and cold wind yields a storm, not pleasant temperature.

    Adding even more cheap labour to the suffering East German labour market would clearly not help put the German economy back on a growth path, economically but even more so politically.

    And this is by far no one way street. Just remember the exceptions to the acquisition of land that Poland imposed, for historical reasons, as well as for fear it would make the structural transition in its agricultural industry (there are still some 18% of Poles working in agrculture).

  2. The restrictions seem similar enough to those imposed on Spain and Portugal in 1986. As I recall, once a wave of massive northward migration failed to materialize, the restrictions were lifted early.

    Contra this, the migrational potential from many of the member-states seems to be substantially larger. Poland, I suppose, is particularly important given its relatively low level of economic development, though once Romania and Bulgaria join it will be quickly surpassed.

    The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia appear to be net receivers of immigrants now, based on relatively high levels of economic development and economic structures conducive to immigration. Possibly these countries–along with the Baltics?–might have the restrictions lifted early?

  3. Eastern Europeans will display the same non-eagerness to flood over the borders in search of jobs that the Spaniards and Portuguese did, and probably more so. Czechs are notorious homebodies. It’s hard to get someone to move from Brno to Prague for a good job. People sometimes refuse to consider a job if it means they have to switch metro lines on the way to work. If there’s a massive spike in unemployment, you might see some movement, but then only very reluctantly. Putting benefits tourism aside, which is a totally separate issue anyway, EU members are worrying over nothing and revealing just how truly narrow and provincial-minded they are in the process.

  4. Czechs are notorious homebodies. It’s hard to get someone to move from Brno to Prague for a good job.

    The large gaps in income and unemployment between Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic, or Budapest and the rest of Hungary, or even (to a certain degree) between the Warsaw area and the rest of Poland haven’t created much internal migration, this is true.

    That said, there has been substantial migration within, from, and to central Europe after Communism. Magyar immigration to Hungary from Romania and Slovakia, the sorting-out of ethnic minorities in the former Yugoslavia, and a small drift of Slovaks to the richer Czech Republic after Czechoslovakia’s end are examples of the first sort of international migration; immigration by nominal ethnic Germans (especially from Poland) to Germany and temporary migration by central Europeans to Germany and Austria are examples of the second sort of international migration; long-distance migration to central Europe by Chinese, Vietnamese, Ukrainians, Armenians, and Russians constitute examples of the third sort of international migration.

    Will central Europe empty out starting in May? Very unlikely. Will international migration increase? Probably, yes, given that income gaps between (say) Germany and Poland now are substantially greater than between France and Spain in the mid-1980s, while levels of human development are broadly comparable. Will this migration be a bad thing? Not for the receiving countries, and hopefully not for the sending countries.

    Will this migration be welcomed? Probably not. All Europeans–and not only those living in the EU-15–are fairly hostile towards immigration. This is a shame, but given the greater hostility towards immigration now as opposed to two decades ago, repeating the Spanish/Portuguese deal was likely the best that could be hoped for.

  5. Unfortunately the governments of the existing EU states are terrible at explaining the benefits of migration and have failed to educate people on likely results.

    People like to think about deadlines, and the 1st of May acts as a symbolic milestone. One month after the new member states have joined governments will be able to start lifting restrictions and no-one in the press will notice.

  6. Yeah, I think the western European governments are being sticks-in-the-mud, and really quite uselessly, in enforcing these restrictions. Every time unemployment goes up, this same stuff gets trotted out. Our workers first. Of course, most employers would rather hire someone who speaks the language and lives in the area, if they can. They hire immigrants either because they accept lower pay or lower standards or because they can easily be manipulated. The second is clearly the receiving state’s failure to monitor workplaces, and I’m inclined to blame them for the first as well. Whenever the state feels the need to support wages by restricting immigration, I have to ask why the jobs that need to be done pay so little that their own unemployed feel they can’t live on the wages.

    Furthermore, most people don’t want to leave home. People imagine that immigrants make careful wage calculations and go whenever the money is better. This is rarely the case. Expatriation has enormous costs, both financial and personal, and few unskilled people will do it unless they feel things are not only better elsewhere, but bad at home. There are some adventurous – and usually skilled – workers who will just take opportunities abroad without worrying too much about it, but they’re the ones you probably wish to encourage.

    No, there will be no flood of workers into Germany when the restrictions disappear, and there wouldn’t be any if the restrictions weren’t in place. The UK will not find itself flooded with Eastern European immigrants, except for the Roma, for whom eastern Europe does suck and anything in the UK really is better.

  7. The UK will not find itself flooded with Eastern European immigrants, except for the Roma, for whom eastern Europe does suck and anything in the UK really is better.

    Agreed. The British reaction to this influx, I suspect, won’t be very positive.

    I suspect that the biggest migration pressures will be introduced when Romania and Bulgaria get admitted to the European Union. There’s been non-trivial levels of out-migration from those two poorer countries–apparently Bulgarians already play in the Greek economy much the same role as Mexicans in the Californian economy, to say nothing of the porosity of the Romanian-Moldovan frontier.

  8. I don’t agree with these restrictions, there are some fair points to be made in their defense, especially Tobias’s about not being a one-way street. Every study I’ve seen referred to says there won’t be a massive exodus of workers. One estimate said only 19,000 Czechs would travel to Germany seeking jobs, which is not a huge number in the scheme of things. A few years ago the Commission projected that 335,000 easterners would go went, and of them 35% would be employees. (What the other 65% will be doing, I haven’t a clue.) Anyway it’s good to hear some views from the other side of the divide.

  9. Scott, I agree completely. I wonder what would have happened if the restrictions had been made public before the referendums in the new EU member states. Anyway, the restrictions only serve to maintain the current levels of illegal labour, which is even cheaper. When employers are forced to pay legal minimum wages to immigrant workers, the incentive to hire them will decrease at least to some extend.
    On top of that, it’s simply bloody unfair. The new member states get all the disadvantages of a membership, but can forget about many of the advantages.

  10. I can only suggest,that the products (in terms of value) the new member states buy from existing members,far outweigh the jobs,possibly taken by new members.It is a two way street,give and take.Not only take…
    Martin,Prague

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