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Europe

Is Germany Missing the EU Boat with Tough Work Rules?

With Europe's borders moving east, Germany wants to create new ones by restricting the influx of workers from the new member states. But experts say the rules may mean Germany is turning away immigrants it needs.

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Germany builds a temporary wall around its labor market

Among the current European Union member states, Germany and Austria have been the loudest opponents of allowing the mostly citizens of the new EU member states, mostly in Eastern Europe, from migrating to the west and taking jobs there after May 1.

The move is intended to assuage fears of workers and unions in Germany that the weak domestic labor market, already saddled with high unemployment, could be further destabilized by an onslaught of cheap labor from the East.

"On the border with the Czech Republic, there's currently an enormous wage and price differential," Thomas Koller, head of the Chamber of Trades in the Upper Frankonia region of Bavaria, told DW-WORLD. "If we allowed immediate free movement of trade, we'd be put under enormous pressure to adjust in ways that we're not ready for."

Pressure for builders and skilled trades

Although eastward expansion is expected to bring with it new trade opportunities, in blue-collar areas like skilled labor or construction, it is likely to put downward wage pressures on Western European workers -- especially in border countries like Germany or Austria. It's no secret that trade groups are trying to buy as much time as possible.

"We could increase our productivity, our capacity for innovation and our quality," Koller said, "but our companies wouldn't have any chance against lower prices (from the east)."

Under pressure from Berlin, the European Commission permitted existing EU members to impose restrictions on the movement of labor from the new member states as part of expansion negotiations. The rules can apply for a maximum of seven years. The final deal bore the approval stamp of the 28 regional chambers of trade in German border areas who banded together to form the "Arge 28" interest group.

Under the agreement, current EU members have been granted permission to set their own timetables in that period for opening up their labor markets. But the Commission also reserves the right to review the restrictions on a country-by-country basis and lift them if it sees fit. "The countries that want to take advantage of the full transition period also have to give reasons for doing so," a spokesman for the European Commission's representation in Germany told DW-WORLD.

Ireland , Britain open borders

While Ireland and the United Kingdom have said they will open their borders immediately after accession, they are the only ones. All the other 13 EU states have expressed a desire to impose some sort of restrictions on new EU citizens, although if they will actually do so is unclear. Even Ireland and the UK plan on requiring that foreigners live there at least two years before they can qualify for welfare programs.

Taken in perspective, the figures for the expected influx of immigrants from the East are relatively modest. A recent study on European migration found that between 700,000 and 900,000 people are expected to migrate to the existing EU countries, including a large number of skilled workers.

"The smart people won't wait until the transition periods have past. They'll just go to other countries like the United States or Australia where they are welcomed. This potential would then be lost for Germany," said Rainer Münz, a professor of demography at Berlin's Humboldt University, who is the author of the study and a handful of books on European migration.

In the long-term, however, Münz said he didn't expect any major wave of migration to occur. During the next 30 years, he said he predicts close to 4 million people from the new member states will migrate. "That's not a large number," he said.

Eastern Europe faces own graying population

By closing its doors during the early days of migration, Germany could be missing out on an opportunity that has a very limited shelf life, since many of the new member states suffer from the same graying population that is putting pressure on Germany's social welfare system.

Ten years down the road, he said, when Germany has become reliant on immigrants because of its own demographic problems, the Eastern European countries won't have much left to offer.

"At that point, these countries, which will also be dealing with the over-aging of their populations, will also be fighting for immigrants," Münz said.

Experts have chalked Germany's decision up to domestic political considerations that won't provide the best solution over the medium or long term, when Berlin will be struggling to find solutions to keep its lavish social system humming along in the face of a falling birth rate.

To others, the argument was simple: Without the restrictions, criticism among the German public about the EU's eastward expansion might have been greater than it was.

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