Restrictions soften for new EU states’ workers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Portugal will join Finland and Spain in opening its job market fully to workers from the European Union’s new member states in May and other countries may ease job restrictions, EU officials said on Friday. «On May 1, we will make a major step toward free movement of workers in Europe,» EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla told a news conference after a meeting of the bloc’s labor ministers. Britain, Ireland and Sweden have allowed in workers from the 10 EU newcomers – mostly East European ex-communist states – since they joined the bloc in May 2004. Other countries kept restrictions for an initial period of two years. Under the accession treaty, «old» member states can retain labor curbs for the new entrants for up to seven years, a period divided into sub-periods of two, three and two years. Spidla said several «old» EU countries were considering softening the labor curbs, and that only Austria and Germany said openly they would keep the restrictions, which boil down to securing a work permit. Spidla did not name the countries involved, but Austrian Economics Minister Martin Bartenstein said «an interesting debate» on the issue was taking place in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Greece. Softer job curbs could mean larger quotas for workers and opening up some industrial sectors to workers from new member states, diplomats said. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia joined the EU in 2004, adding about 75 million citizens and taking the enlarged bloc’s population to 454 million. A recent European Commission report said Britain, Ireland and Sweden had benefited from opening their job markets to newcomers, while countries that kept restrictions risked black markets, where people work illegally and pay no taxes.