Germany's politics of asparagus picking

EU ministers on Monday debated demands to limit labor migration from new members.

For more than a century, springtime for Berliners has meant filling their plates with tasty white asparagus.

One of eastern Germany's great culinary traditions would not be possible, however, if it weren't for the army of seasonal farm laborers from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

The annual harvest is responsible for what is considered Europe's largest annual legal migration.

And with the European Union considering restrictions on worker movement for new members, opponents point to the harvest as evidence of the need for foreign labor, and proof that one fear - that workers from nearby states will stay on - may be overblown.

In a region where nearly 1 in 5 workers is unemployed, virtually no German can be found to take on the backbreaking work of asparagus picking. But for many young Poles, the prospect of earning $100 a day - a week's wages at home - draws them to the fields of Beelitz, southwest of the German capital, year after year.

A common debate where wealthy nations border less-well-off neighbors is complicated by plans for EU expansion. Income disparities have led Berlin and Vienna to demand that new member states be subject to a seven-year moratorium on labor movement. There are no official dates for entry, but Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Cyprus, and Malta hope to join by 2004. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey are later candidates.

At a meeting in Brussels on Monday, EU foreign ministers failed to agree on a transition period, however. Spain was the main holdout, demanding guarantees of continued EU aid for its poor regions once even more financially strapped nations gain entry.

Sweden's Anna Lindh, who chaired the meeting, said she hoped for a deal by July 1. That's when Sweden will hand over the rotating EU presidency to Belgium.

Particularly in Germany and Austria, there is a widespread fear that the open borders so prized by the EU will lead to a massive influx of cheap labor from Central and Eastern Europe.

Yet the presence in the Beelitz region of 1,500 Poles with seasonal work permits suggests that even in regions with high unemployment, the German labor market is large enough to accommodate - if not require - foreign workers.

Politicians from EU-aspirant countries, German farmers, and many Western economists point out that alarm about a mass migration of workers is largely based on outdated or false assumptions. "Fifteen farms exist thanks to the Polish pickers," says Manfred Schmidt, head of the local asparagus growers' association. "If they didn't come here to work, local jobs would vanish. Our prosperity is directly dependent on the Polish seasonal workers."

Mr. Schmidt's praise for Polish laborers is unusual in a country that clings to stereotypes of its eastern neighbor as the lair of car thieves, counterfeiters, and loafers. While Poles indeed did once make up a large proportion of illegally employed workers in places like Berlin, there are signs that their numbers are decreasing.

"Most Poles who wanted to work abroad did so five to 10 years ago. Now you'd rather have the situation of those people returning to Poland," says Tomasz Kalinowski, economic and trade counselor at the Polish Embassy in Berlin. "Those people want to be normal citizens in their own country. They don't want to be second-class citizens in certain EU member states."

According to some estimates, half a million Poles have returned home in recent years after living and working in Western Europe. Mr. Kalinowski attributes the current German stance to a "false interpretation" of the economic situation in Poland. While Poles earned on average 1/20 as much as western Germans did a decade ago, today, they earn about 1/5 as much as Germans. The Polish zloty, once a synonym for rampant inflation, has made significant gains against the German mark.

Seasonal work in Germany is still lucrative - but it's seen as a quick source of extra income and not as a reason to emigrate. "Many people want to work in Germany, but they don't want to live here," says Robert Wyszynski, who has been coming here to pick asparagus for the past seven years. Married, and with two children, Mr. Wyszynski has a job in his brother's cosmetics company in Wroclaw. "Of course I'll stay in Poland [after EU accession]," he says.

A study published in April by the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin finds that the number of people from Central and Eastern Europe currently in the EU to be "negligible," a mere 0.3 percent of the total workforce.

The study projects that if the EU were to accept 10 members all at once, there would be 335,000 migrants from east-central Europe annually. Only a third of them would be potential employees, most with a higher job qualification. And while blue-collar workers in border regions would face stiffer competition, the institute says that the impact would be "moderate," because most migrants would head for prosperous areas that could absorb them.

"Fears that the EU will be swamped by immigrants from central and eastern European countries as a result of free movement of labor seem to be ill-founded," the study concludes.

Applicant countries couldn't agree more. Leaders across the region have attacked the idea of a transition period, arguing that once they join the EU, they want to be members with full rights.

At the same time, aspirant countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are making demands of their own. Fearing that rich Westerners - particularly Germans and Austrians - will gobble up prime real estate, these potential member states are calling for transition periods in the sale of land to foreigners.

"It's still a phase of bargaining," explains Polish diplomat Kalinowski.

Accession negotiators from East-Central Europe are aware, however, that when Spain and Portugal joined the EU in 1986, they were bound by temporary limits on worker mobility. "The argument is not whether there will be a transition period, but what kind of transition period," Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan conceded last month. "I, of course, hope that it will be a very short one, short enough to convince the European Union countries that their fears have been unjustified."

Berlin's demand for labor restrictions could be seen as a nod to the lack of popular support for EU membership for countries such as Poland. A recent poll showed only 37 percent of Germans endorsed the idea.

Still, economists and business leaders here are pushing the government to open - rather than close - the domestic labor market as a response to global competition and Germany's demographic trend toward a society increasingly top-heavy with pensioners.

A year ago, Berlin trumpeted a misnamed "green card" program, loosely based on the US model, to fill a shortage of computer experts. Yet only 100 Polish programmers have so far taken advantage of the work permit.

Kalinowski says excessive restrictions and the language barrier acted as deterrents. "Opening the labor market doesn't automatically mean that there are so many Poles who would take these jobs," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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