The Labour Market: The Iron Curtain Which 'Must' Remain

Article published on March 12, 2004
community published
Article published on March 12, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The cynicism of certain countries is threatening the reunification of Europe. The Erasmus generation cannot accept this.

What a confusing place new Europe is! As Brussels welcomes Eastern Europeans to work in its bureaucratic superstructure, its Member States are closing their doors to willing workers. The decision taken by the UK and Ireland is the latest in a trend of restrictive policies as one by one EU Member States put up barriers to free movement at the very moment when, symbolically, they should be breaking them down. Although most of the plans are not yet finalised, Germany and Austria look set to impose the full seven year restriction on employment proposed by the Commission in the mid ‘90s and agreed as part of the Accession Treaties; Sweden and Denmark will refuse the right to benefits for the new EU citizens but may allow residence and work permits if they find a job within 6 months; meanwhile Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands will only allow those with work permits the right to jobs, meaning effectively that only those with a passport to work before arriving in the host country will be allowed access to employment.

Lessons from History: the Portuguese and Spanish Case

This enlargement may be unprecedented in the history of the EU, but the story of immigration in the context of enlargement, or rather the scare story, is a familiar one. In 1986, when Spain and Portugal joined the Union, there were worries about the immigrants who were to be flooding our shores. As in the current wave of enlargement, a seven-year transitional period of labour market restrictions was agreed with the rationale that following that period the new Member State would have overcome the economic divide and there would therefore be no desire for migration. But, largely due to the speed of the economic catch-up the expected waves never came and so the transition period was quickly shortened. A number of workers even returned from northern states after their countries joined the EU amid increased prospects of an improved standard of living.

Anti-immigration campaigners present racism in the guise of econometrics, arguing that there is no economic case for migration by pointing out the migrants (ie 29% of London's population) already on your doorstep. The "facts" are deceptive: We are told 40% of Poles want to live and work in another European country (according to a study by Price Waterhouse Coopers). What we are not told is that 75% of Hungarians do not envisage leaving their country because of their strong sense of family. Now the Commission has fought back: they cite a recent Dublin study which paints a different picture of reality after enlargement where figures suggest new migration will rise only by about 1% over next five years. That amounts to 220,000 immigrants a year into all 15 current Member States.

Looking beyond the numerical myths

Yet those playing the numbers game are missing the point. The fact is migration, as a reality of the globalised system, is as real and inevitable as international trade. We must expect fluctuating numbers as we expect fluctuating markets. But the bottom line is that migration fills a need which Europe’s declining population makes ever greater. Migrants are a source of labour, supplying skills in short supply and raising productivity. Because they fill gaps in the skilled labour market or take low skilled jobs that the host population will not undertake, they do not have an adverse effect on the employment levels of the existing populations. Nor do migrants have an adverse effect on wages or on civil society. In parts of Europe the entrepreneurial spirit of migrants has diversified and rejuvenated whole sectors.

Perhaps the most important aspect of legal labour migration in the long-term is that it will lessen the flows of illegal migrants from those countries, enabling people to contribute fully to the economy and society of the host country. In this way, legal migrants are a resource not a burden - not receiving wealth as anti-immigrants wrongly assume, but its actual creators.

A recent PriceWaterhouse study bears out this view: It finds that those keenest to migrate from the East are those in most senior positions or currently unemployed desperate for work. The study concludes that the receiving countries of the EU can expect "a high quality labour supply which should improve its short-term economic and its long-term socio-economic base with a more active demographic structure”. In short more opportunities than risks for the old Member States.

Europe's fortress is built on the foundations of a myth: that free movement can truly exist within walls made of iron. The underlying distrust of this policy sees the accession states erecting frontiers between themselves to avoid migrants. At the very moment of enlargement, the dream of a Europe united through an internal market of peoples is under threat. As the Erasmus generation, that irony cannot be lost on any of us.