To EU newcomers: thin welcome

Britain, Ireland join other European Union members this week in restricting migration from the east.

Maria B. takes her cash wage, counts it, pockets the notes, and keeps the coins out for bus fare.

"It was easy to come to England," says the young Hungarian, who has worked as a cleaner and babysitter since moving here last year to improve her English and earn a little money.

"It's just hard to work here legally," she adds. "But things will get a lot easier after May 1."

Not necessarily.

In two months, the European Union will expand eastward, theoretically throwing open the doors of the rich 15-nation club to the 72 million inhabitants living behind the old iron curtain. Actually, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians should not expect to be greeted with open arms.

From Berlin to Dublin, fears are rising that millions of Eastern Europeans will head west seeking work, benefits, and a higher standard of living - and thus aggravate unemployment, threaten economic stability, and bring out latent xenophobia.

All the current EU 15 are set to impose temporary restrictions on migration from the former Eastern bloc. In the latest measure, Britain on Monday unveiled plans to prevent migrants from claiming social welfare payments - an abrupt change of stance designed to ensure that the country is not "exposed" to so-called "benefit tourists." Ireland - the last country with an open-door policy - said it would follow suit.

The curbs - a mixture of work permits, quotas, and social welfare restrictions - have been criticized for penalizing the new countries and violating the fundamentals of EU unity, which include complete freedom of movement in member countries by 2011.

"This is about the ideal of Europe, an area where people are free to do as they choose, including move," says Danny Sriskandarajah, a migration expert with the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank. "Central Europe is not necessarily as economically backward as people think, but this is part of the pre- judice about poor cousins from the East getting to be members of the club."

David Coleman, professor of demography at Oxford University, says the restrictions are a clear sign that enlargement has gone too far too soon.

"This accession of so many countries at once has been premature and far too big a bite," he says. "It's been driven more by political consideration than common sense."

Professor Coleman argues in favor of a moratorium on migration from the new countries on the grounds that their average standard of living is considerably lower than EU countries. "The incentive for migration is therefore far greater," Coleman says.

Perhaps the greatest concern is in countries like Germany and Austria, which share borders with the new members and host around three-quarters of the million or so people from Eastern Europe already living in the EU. With unemployment persisting above 10 percent, Germany is limiting the number of work permits it will issue, and Austria is expected to take a similar stance. Further west, nations traditionally known as open, flexible societies - the Netherlands and Sweden - have also raised barriers.

The accession countries are grumbling about their treatment, while many experts say that fears of a migration torrent are overblown. "States have very little to fear from Central and Eastern Europeans coming to seek employment," says Dr Heather Grabbe, an expert in enlargement at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank. "Numbers are likely to be small, most people will be young, educated; motivated and [will] speak foreign languages and bring skills to fill gaps in the labor market," she says.

Britain, for example, has more than half a million job vacancies, record employment levels, and a steady economy. Some parts, like Scotland for example, have a shrinking population, threatening a labor shortage. Yet Britain can expect just 17,000 migrants from Eastern Europe in the next few years, a tiny portion of its 28-million-strong work force, according to projections by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank. Government projections foresee an influx of 5,000-13,000 Eastern European immigrants per year over the next five years.

"[Britain] has an opportunity to supplement to fill some critical shortages in the labor market to attract the brightest and best in the first wave of migrants," says Mr. Sriskandarajah. "In this country we are short of skilled professionals in healthcare and engineering; and skilled craftspeople, builders, carpenters, electricians," he adds.

Those who foresee a mass influx of migrants should be reassured by past experience, say several observers. In 1986, when Spain and Portugal joined, fears of Iberian hordes surging north proved unfounded. "When they joined the Union, everyone expected massive flows and it didn't happen," said Cristina Pineda Polo, a policy analyst for the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank in Brussels. "Their economies got better and people took the opportunity to go back home."

A more welcoming policy could be increasingly at odds with popular sentiment, however. The right-wing British press has warned vociferously that the country is about to be "swamped" by the "work-shy" of Eastern Europe, reserving particular venom for the million-strong Roma communities of Central Europe.

Valeriu Nicolae, a Roma rights advocate in Brussels, rejects the idea that Roma - outcast and harshly treated in their own countries - will be rushing to find havens further west. "May 1 means nothing to them," she says. "It's just another day when they have to find means to survive." Even if there were a Roma migration, Nicolae says, Europe would benefit from it. Think of all the menial jobs that locals turn their noses up at, she says: "There would be lots of Roma willing to do this rather than scavenging on a garbage dump."

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