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Opening up the labour market - 18/11/2008

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Report finds restrictions on movement of workers from new EU member countries no longer needed.

When the EU expanded in 2004, some of the 15 existing EU countries were worried they would be flooded by workers from eastern and central Europe.

So they were allowed to temporarily restrict access to their labour markets, making it harder for newcomers to work there. The same restrictions were imposed on Bulgaria and Romania when they joined in 2007.

Now it seems those fears were unfounded. According to a new EU report, many more workers have immigrated from outside the bloc than have moved from eastern to western Europe. What’s more, with the economic downturn reducing demand for labour, such labour flows are expected to decline.

There is little evidence that significant numbers of local workers have lost jobs to newcomers or seen their wages decline. On the contrary, workers from new member EU countries have been a boon to the "old" economies, relieving labour shortages in many areas.

The commission is therefore urging EU countries to lift any remaining restrictions and give new members full access to their labour markets. “The right to work in another country is a fundamental freedom for people in the EU,” said employment commissioner Vladimír Špidla. “I call on member states to consider whether the temporary restrictions of free movement are still needed given the evidence presented in our report today.”

Only Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Germany still impose labour market restrictions on the eight central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004. But many member countries continue to restrict workers from Bulgaria and Romania. Lifting them would help avoid problems stemming from closed labour markets, such as undeclared work and bogus self-employment.

Today, nationals from the new eastern member states make up around 0.9% of the population of the western EU members. In 2003, the figure was 0.4%. By comparison, the percentage of non-EU nationals living in the 15 original EU countries has grown from 3.7% in 2003 to 4.5% today.

Most eastern EU nationals working in the west are from Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia, and their top destinations are Ireland and the UK, two countries that opened their labour markets straight away. Romanians tend to work in Spain and Italy.

Report on worker mobility

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