Commentary: The EU: Some May Be More Equal Than Others

By Christopher Condon

To the struggling nations of the Continent, the European Union is an exclusive club they would love to join--one that guarantees trade privileges, farm aid, and other goodies to its members. No wonder, then, that the governments of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Estonia were thrilled when EU negotiators tapped them as the first candidates from the East to apply for membership. If the discussions go well and these nations continue to grow economically, they could join as early as 2003.

But on Apr. 11, the EU's executive body, the European Commission, revealed just how ambivalent the West still is about the East--and that has disturbing implications for the long-term success of EU expansion. The EC approved a proposal that would let current member states deny the citizens of its new members one of the community's central privileges--the ability to work anywhere in the Union without applying for special visas. The restriction would apply for up to seven years after a country joins the EU. So although Poland could join the EU, say, its workers could still be banned from the factories, farms, and offices of Germany, France, and the Netherlands for a long time.

DELUGED. EU negotiators say that without some controls, workers from the poorer East would flood into the core areas of the EU. These workers, accustomed to working for a fraction of Western wages, would gladly take jobs at lower pay and sign up with employers who had few scruples about workplace safety. Besides, the European Integration Consortium estimates 335,000 would immediately move to the EU from candidate countries if restrictions on immigration were lifted anytime soon.

It's a convincing argument--until you start to examine its seamy side. Right-wing forces in Germany and Austria fear--and sometimes even loathe--immigrants from the East. So the EU embraced the idea of the transitional period to undermine the right's overall opposition to expansion eastward. But hobbling the movements of Eastern workers could just as easily encourage the xenophobes to increase their demands for further limits on EU expansion.

What's more, the fears of a flood of hungry immigrants are vastly overblown. The oft-quoted number of 335,000 includes would-be immigrants from countries like Romania and Slovakia. These countries won't have a chance to join until 2008 at the earliest. Why scare people with statistics that don't really fit the facts?

The fearmongers ignore other evidence. When Spain, Portugal, and Greece joined the EU, membership created better opportunities for work in the newly joined states, with manufacturers locating in these low-wage areas to gain tariff-free access to the EU. The result was that guest workers from Spain and Portugal started heading home from France and Germany.

FEW RIPPLES. Most studies also suggest that immigration from the East would do no damage to the West. In fact, there may even be a slight benefit as the new workers boost payroll taxes and consumption. Already, in agriculture, Poles take seasonal jobs the Dutch labor market can't fill. Germany has been luring high-tech workers from Hungary and the Czech Republic under its so-called green-card program for key personnel: Disruption in the workplace has been minimal.

None of this evidence is lost on Western Europe's leaders. They just choose to ignore it--to the great frustration of policymakers in the East. "People in the EU are too worried about the number of Poles likely to move to other EU countries," says Polish Finance Minister Jaroslaw Bauc. The Polish government, in fact, cannot even lure the jobless from rural areas to Poland's cities, where jobs are plentiful.

In return for swallowing this proposal, the Eastern Europeans may be able to wring big concessions in other areas from EU negotiators. But the whole process leaves an uneasy feeling that a scary precedent is being set. Membership for the East? Sure. But only of the second-class kind.

Condon covers Eastern European economics and politics from Budapest.

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