When Czech politicians were convincing Czech voters to say "yes" in the referendum two years ago on joining the EU, one of the things they promised was that Czech workers would be able to find a job anywhere in the European Union. But with the exception of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden, all "old" EU members introduced temporary legal barriers against a feared influx of workers from the east. No such thing has materialised in the three countries that allowed free movement of labour and that's one of the reasons why Czech politicians are now calling for the removal of those restrictions in the rest of the old EU 15.
The old EU 15 will be deciding next April whether to keep labour restrictions for workers from the ten new member states. Czech politicians have joined the EU Employment Commissioner, former Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, in his call for a total and fast removal of all obstacles preventing people from finding a job in another EU country. Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda argues that Czech workers present no threat to any other labour market in the old EU 15.
"In my view, the problem is a totally artificial one. Free movement of persons is a fundamental freedom in the European Union and the Czechs do not bring any problem to any labour market in Europe. In my view it is just a question of courage, political courage to liberalise the labour markets to be open to everybody. That's only a fair solution to all member states. There is a good example in my country: We have got officially 50,000 Ukrainians, unofficially maybe between 100,000 and 200,000 and nothing has happened. The labour market is solid and the problem with unemployment is not a problem with the Ukrainians. So that's my permanent message: the question is just a political one."
The United Kingdom opened its labour market on the day the new ten members joined, on May 1, 2004. Andy Burham is the UK's Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State.
"Well, the British experience has been very positive. Around about 15,000 people from the Czech Republic have come to work in our labour market and it's our view that that's good for Britain, but also good in the long term for the Czech Republic in terms of giving people experience of our country and that both of us will benefit from it. So we think it's been good all round."
The Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek has raised the question of relaxing the restrictions on free movement of workers at meetings with the Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and the French President Jacques Chirac. During talks with President Chirac last month, Prime Minister Paroubek suggested an exception could be made for Czech university graduates. Agnes Leclerc from the French Ministry of Employment, Labour and Youth Integration.
"It is not clear yet what will be decided at the end of the first two-year transition period next year. As for university graduates, I believe the talks concerned people who have studied in France and who could afterwards seek employment in the country. The transition periods don't restrict the movement of students. We are trying to attract foreign students and enable them to enter our labour market - during and after their studies."
Although bilateral talks between individual countries are important, the Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda says it's not the preferred solution.
"We are trying to raise the point at all our bilateral meetings. But I am against making some special arrangements between for example the Czech Republic and Germany or the Czech Republic and Austria. Because we are asking for a European solution. I believe that the new assessment of the Commission will be encouraging to the old member states and helpful for the new ones. We need to stick together."
The countries regarded as most likely to consider opening their labour markets next year are Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Spain.
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