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Flooding the job market?

Jennifer Fraczek /aiJanuary 3, 2014

Germany has tried to keep Romanian and Bulgarian job seekers out as long as possible. Other countries seem to be a lot more comfortable with integrating new EU citizens into their labor market.

Image: imago/Xinhua

It's one of the fundamental rights of EU citizens that they can look for work in any of the member states. By joining the bloc, the people of any new member are granted this right - though not necessarily with immediate effect. Other countries in the 28-member bloc have to the option to somewhat restrict that freedom of movement for a maximum of seven years. In the case of members Romania and Bulgaria, nine of the older members have done so - among them Germany and the United Kingdom.

Since the beginning of the year, this restriction has been lifted, which has reignited a debate in Germany over the country's immigration laws. It's a discussion triggered by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Prominent party members have been warning of what they described as "poverty immigration." UK Prime Minister David Cameron has raised similar concerns, warning of social welfare "tourism."

Poor woman with pram
Many Germans are concerned, immigrants will abuse the country's welfare systemImage: imago/epd

A sense of fear

The German debate was marked by a defensive fear, explained Andreas Pott, director of the Institute for Migration and Intercultural Studies of Osnabruck University. He told DW that when compared to other countries Germany was less relaxed in its handling of migrants.

In Spain for instance, there are hardly any such debates although the country is itself suffering from high unemployment levels. According to OECD figures, the country has seen some 51,000 Bulgarian and 327 Romanian immigrants between 2007 and 2011. In Italy, the restriction was lifted in 2012 and in the past decade one in four immigrants was Romanian and there was no debate on the issue. In Germany, however, where unemployment is at relatively low 5 percent, the debate is all over the media.

Traditionally closer ties between Romania and Italy or Spain may play a role in those countries more welcoming attitude. What probably is more decisive though is that an economically strong country like Germany might be more attractive for prospective immigrants.

"In Italy and Spain it is currently very difficult to find a job. Where there are no jobs, there's little immigration for jobs," said OECD migration expert Thomas Liebig. In Germany however, there's actually need for workers and employees.

Whether a country decides to immediately open its borders or opt for restricting immigration is also dependant on the geographical situation. When a number of central European countries joined the EU in 2004, "it was Germany and Austria who opted for restricting immigration, and those were the two countries who had a direct border with the new member states," Liebig told DW. In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Cyprus joined the EU.

Thomas Liebig
Liebig believes that in end, the EU's labor market will profit from the freedom of movementImage: privat

Back then, Germany had seen a similar debate - though not linked to the issue of poverty in the new member states. Mixing these issues seems flawed if only because the free access to the labor marked does not mean free access to the welfare system. The freedom of movement to find a job means that a person can look for employment in another member state for three months. Job-seekers, however, do not though have a right to the welfare benefits of that country. Whether or not a country offers welfare to immigrants is a matter of domestic policy.

Labor market to profit

Although Romanians and Bulgarians have proven to emigrating more than citizens of other new EU members, many observers believe that it's unlikely there will be a major wave of immigration to Germany or Austria. There's also been no such wave in 2011 when the German labor market got opened for Polish workers. By that time, many Poles had already found jobs in other EU countries that didn't restrict immigration.

Pott said Germany has missed an opportunity to get skilled labor into the country. "Many Poles who Germany could have well needed, went to the UK," the migration expert explained.

On the other hand, Liebig explains that in 2004, Germany had just introduced labor market reforms and was in the process of getting immigrants that already were in the country, into jobs.

"That worked well and now the country opens up to further immigration," he said.

Liebig said he convinced that in the end, everybody will profit from the liberation of the labor market, "People will go to where their workforce is needed and the entire European labor market will profit from that."