Schroder wants to restrict workers from new EU states


Workers from the formerly communist states in Central and Eastern Europe should have to wait for seven years after they join the EU before they can take up well-paid jobs in the West, the German Chancellor said yesterday. Speaking in the Bavarian town of Weiden, near the border with the Czech Republic, Mr Gerhard Schroder said Germany could not absorb a sudden wave of economic migrants from the East.

"In view of the fact that we still have 3.8 million unemployed, the capacity of the German labour market to accept more people will remain seriously limited for a long time. We need transitional arrangements with flexibility for the benefit of both the old and the new member-states," he said.

Mr Schroder said flexible arrangements should take account of the skills shortage in some sectors that has created a demand in Western countries for highly skilled workers from Eastern Europe but insisted border regions must be protected from an influx of cheap labour.

Last week's EU summit at Nice cleared the way for the first new members to join the Union, probably in 2005, but politicians in Germany and Austria believe they have to reassure voters that EU enlargement will not be a threat to jobs and will not precipitate large-scale immigration.

The Polish Prime Minister, Mr Jerzy Busek, reacted sharply to Mr Schroder's suggestion and said there should be no delay in implementing free movement of labour after his country joins the EU.

"This issue is the subject of negotiations which will start next year. Our position is that labour markets should be opened for Poles at the moment when we join the European Union," he said.

Most experts believe the scale of economic migration from East to West after EU enlargement will be modest and Mr Schroder acknowledged that Germany will need immigrants after 2010 to counteract its low birth rate and to make its pension system sustainable.

"We have a labour policy transition problem in Germany for a limited period. The right solution for a transitional problem can only be transitional regulation for a set period." He pointed out that Greece, Spain and Portugal had seven-year delays on access to labour markets when they joined the EU in the 1980s but these were later reduced as fears of mass migration proved unfounded.

Mr Schroder insisted that Germany was committed to bringing the first new member-states into the EU as quickly as possible and he predicted that enlargement would create a "prosperity spiral" that would benefit both Germany and its poorer neighbours.

The Chancellor addressed his remarks to a conference of his Social Democrats, who are already planning their strategy for winning a second term in office in the autumn of 2002. The government was elected on a programme, drawn up by the leftwing former finance minister, Mr Oskar Lafontaine, that promised to cut unemployment and offer better protection to workers.

Although the Chancellor has introduced a raft of pro-business economic measures, including a huge package of tax cuts, he appears set to tack towards the left in the run-up to the election. Germany stands to benefit more than any other EU member-state from access to Eastern European markets, but many Germans fear manufacturers will be tempted by cheap labour to move to the ex-communist countries once they join the EU.