Exporting Workers

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Debate is raging in the UK over the issue of free movement of labour, which lies at the heart of the country's support of Bulgaria's bid to become a full member of the EU.

In early August, the opposition Conservative Party claimed that Britain could not handle another wave of migration similar to that experienced following the accession of 10 new EU members in May 2004. On August 21, Alistair Darling, the secretary for trade, said that there would be no open door to migrants from either Bulgaria or Romania should the two join the bloc as scheduled for January 1, 2007.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's office has played down the issue, releasing a statement saying that no final decision has been taken on whether the rights of Bulgarians or Romanians to work in the UK would be limited.

The debate in the UK was sparked by the massive wave of migrants that arrived following the last expansion of the EU, with an estimated 600,000 citizens from countries such as Poland making the move to Britain, more than 47 times as many as the 13,000 the government had anticipated.

The debate has generated a diplomatic response from Bulgarian authorities, keen not to offend anyone in the lead up to the final assessment of Sofia's membership bid in September.

On August 21, Meglena Kouneva, Bulgaria's European integration minister, said that there had been no official indication that the UK labour market would be closed to Bulgarian or Romanian workers once the two countries joined the EU.

"The European integration ministry has not received official information from the UK," Kouneva said, though adding a note of warning. "At the same time, statements in the media should not be underestimated as these could affect public opinion and future policies."

However, even if the UK did take the decision to impose some limitations on Bulgarian workers other EU member states would continue to keep their labour markets open, the minister said.

Under EU legislation, existing member states can close their doors to migrant workers from newly admitted countries for up to seven years, a choice that the UK chose not to take in 2004.

The question of freedom of movement of labour is an important one for Bulgaria, given that an outflow of workers would ease the country's unemployment levels, currently running at just under 9%. It would also result in an increased inflow of foreign currency through remittances, which amounted to $347m for the first five months of 2006.

Apart from the UK, many in the bloc share concerns that Bulgaria's EU accession will unleash a tide of migrant workers that will swamp local labour markets. The Bulgarian government released the results of a survey showing that just 2.9% of its nationals considered migrating following their country's entry to the Union.

Recently, the Bulgarian cabinet approved new laws and regulations easing restrictions on foreigners, especially those from EU member states, to enter and work in the country.

Under the new rules, EU passport holders will be able to enter and stay in Bulgaria without any visa requirements for three months and restrictions regarding their employment have been eased. Following Bulgaria's accession to the EU, even these relaxed restrictions are set to be dropped, said Emilia Maslarova, the labour and social policy minister.

Also, Britons make up an increasing portion of the 52,000 foreigners working legally in Bulgaria. The number of UK passport holders that sought permanent residence in the country jumped 49% in 2005 compared to 2004.

Bulgaria is quietly confident that it will not only meet the requirements for EU membership and be admitted on January 1, 2007, but that doors will also be open to its workers.

On August 7, just as the debate was gaining momentum, Kouneva said that Bulgarians will get full labour rights in the 10 most recently joined EU member states and that six or seven of the older members would also grant labour rights at the time of accession.

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