Britain, Ireland To Restrict Work Rights

Britain, Ireland to Restrict Work Rights

Published: October 24, 2006
Filed at 4:33 p.m. ET

LONDON (AP) — Britain and Ireland will not give Romanians and Bulgarians the free access to work that other Eastern Europeans received when their countries joined the European Union in 2004, officials said Tuesday.

Seeking to prevent a wave of new arrivals, London and Dublin imposed restrictions on workers from the countries that are soon to become the EU's newest members. Both Romania and Bulgaria said they were disappointed by the move.

While the post-2004 influx has caused little friction, the British and Irish governments have been under political pressure not to allow such an unrestricted flow of workers again.

Some fear that without restrictions, hundreds of thousands of people could arrive from Bulgaria and Romania, driving down wages and straining public services such as schools.

Authorities have estimated that some 600,000 people, half from Poland, came to Britain looking for work after their countries joined in 2004. That greatly exceeded the government's early estimate that about 15,000 people a year would come from those countries.

The Republic of Ireland had expected about 10,000 immigrants. An economically thriving country of 4.2 million, it has absorbed nearly 200,000 Eastern European immigrants over the past two years.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett acknowledged critics' allegation that Britain failed to anticipate the scale of the first wave of Eastern European migration.

Britain's post-2004 policy ''has worked out OK, but there is a feeling that perhaps we did not understand how that process of transition would work as well as we might have done,'' she said while in Berlin to meet German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

''So what we want to do this time is have a more measured and controlled process of transition,'' Beckett said.

The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, said it regretted the British and Irish decisions because it wants to establish free movement of workers throughout the bloc as quickly as possible.

Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dimitar Tsanchev called London's decision ''disappointing.''

''Each member state has the right to impose such restrictions, as provided in our entry treaty, but we think that such a decision will put us on an unequal footing with the 10 member states that joined in 2004,'' he said.

''Our government did everything it could to prevent this measure,'' said Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu. ''Now we have to focus our efforts to ensure that this transition period is as short as possible.''

Britain, Ireland and Sweden were the only countries that immediately allowed free access to workers from the 10 nations that joined the bloc nearly three years ago.

Britain's labor market will be opened gradually to citizens of the new member nations after their countries join on Jan. 1, said Liam Byrne, a Home Office minister.

Unskilled workers will be allowed to work only in agriculture and food processing, with a quota of 20,000 a year. They will be able to work for six months at a time and will not be eligible for public benefits, Byrne said. Migrants from the 2004 accession nations are also ineligible for benefits.

Skilled workers from Romania and Bulgaria will have no more access to British jobs than they do now, Byrne said — unlike citizens from all other EU member states, who are allowed to work in Britain without individual approval.

He said the restrictions would be reviewed within a year, with consideration given to labor market needs, the impact of prior immigration, and other European nations' openness to Romanians and Bulgarians.

''Over the years Europe has prospered by letting people move and trade freely,'' said British Home Secretary John Reid said. ''But as the EU expands, this poses new challenges which have to be managed properly. Here, as elsewhere, managed migration is the right approach.''

Micheal Martin, Ireland's trade and employment minister, said his government needed ''to take stock, be cautious'' and focus on integrating immigrants already in the country.

Romanian and Bulgarian jobseekers will continue to require work permits but they will get preference over those from non-EU countries, he said. The restrictions will be reassessed by the end of 2008.