What Happened to EU Freedom of Movement?

The Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad brings us the news today that, at a meeting of the EU Social Affairs Council, both German and Austria have chosen to continue to keep their labor markets closed to citizens from eight fellow EU countries which happen to be in “Eastern Europe”.*

This is disappointing for all true EU-believers, since “Freedom of Movement,” including that for the purpose of going to another member-state to work, is supposed to be one fundamental principle of the EU, fully accessible to all new citizens upon their country’s joining. Still, things used to be worse. Almost all the 15 member-states already in the Union at the time of the 10-nation expansion of 1 May 2004 imposed restrictions on the ability of the new EU citizens (except those from Malta and Cyprus) to come take jobs in their countries; Sweden, the UK, and Ireland were the only exceptions who truly lived up to their EU principles fully.

And then, even for those countries that had to bow to pressure from nationalist economic interests and impose those worker restrictions, all of that was suppose to come to an end after five years at the latest, i.e. by May of 2009. Most in fact ended them after only a couple of years – in more than one case, likely after the country finally realized how stupid they were – but Austria and Germany carried on. Now these two want to keep carrying on, invoking the escape clause that allows the restrictions to be continued up until April, 2011 if doing away with them could be shown to threaten the respective national labor markets. Yes, both the Austrian and German labor markets are currently not looking so good, but that has much more to do with general economic conditions rather than the prospect of cheaper labor being allowed in from the East. This was nonetheless quite enough to manufacture the required fig-leaf of justification for prolonging the restrictions.

But you just have to wonder at the sight of the two “western” EU states with really the most extensive contact and history of engaging with the Eastern half of the continent still clutching at this labor market protection – wouldn’t they have learned by now to deal in an economic way with their immediate neighbors to the East?The Austrian authorities, in particular, should hide their faces in shame: Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and all the rest have been migrating there (in particular to Vienna, of course) for centuries, so that some of the most prominent personalities of the Austrian political, musical, and literary scenes, past and present, have sported unmistakably non-German family names.

Oh, and the NRC article finished up with a mention that the new anti-Muslim, “populist” Dutch political party of Geert Wilders, the PVV, has stated its aim of reimposing restrictions on the immigration to the Netherlands of Polish workers. These people don’t seem to realize that that would not be possible under the EU, that the time for such restrictions on these fellow EU-citizens – in the Netherlands’ case, at least – has long been over.

* The NRC article does not list those eight states, but it’s easy to figure them out, since that 10-nation EU expansion included but two countries which were not “Eastern European” – Cyprus and Malta – so the rest were Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. We should add the 1 January 2007 accession states – Bulgaria and Rumania – to this list of countries whose citizens are restricted in their right to work in Austria and Germany, although in those cases the timetable for when those restrictions may be imposed is of course somewhat different, namely through 2014.

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