When Britain threw open its doors to workers from Eastern Europe two years ago, plumbers like Keith Millar didn't know what to expect. Official projections anticipated a few thousand pioneers would take advantage of their new status as EU members and seek new lives in Britain, a drop in the ocean for a work force of 30 million.
In reality, more than half a million came, two thirds of them from Poland – and many of those tradesmen like Mr. Millar.
"It's not a level playing field any more," he says, grumbling about the cheap Polish workers muscling in on his business. "I'll do a boiler estimate for a client and they say they'll think about it. Then I go back a few weeks later and find they've had the boiler installed. These Poles are hardworking and they do the job for half the price."
Millar's concerns are symptomatic of a deep fatigue in Europe with the idea of expansion. Old notions of uniting Europe in one large happy bloc and spreading peace, prosperity, and stability to all four corners of the continent are getting lost in more gritty concerns: Will poorer eastern members dilute the wealth of "old Europe"? Will a Lithuanian welder come and take my job? Is the EU club getting too big, unwieldy – unmanageable even?
This week, the EU gave the green light to Bulgaria and Romania to join in January 2007, expanding the union to 27 countries and nearly 500 million people. But it did so in almost grudging fashion, setting strict conditions for membership and allowing curbs on migrant workers from the two countries. So far, only Finland says it will welcome Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers.
At the same time, the EU's top Eurocrat, Jose Manuel Barroso, signaled that it may be time to draw breath before bringing any more countries into the EU. "We are not in a position to further integrate Europe without further institutional reform," he said. "There are limits to our absorption capacity."
The EU has come a long way since it started out as a trade agreement between six Western European countries in 1957. By 1982, there were 12 members, 15 a decade later, and suddenly 25 when 10 new countries, mostly Eastern European, joined in 2004.
But the new wave has met with skepticism, an "enlargement fatigue" that is at its weariest in Central European countries like Germany and Austria that adjoin the new EU countries of the East and fear that issues like migration and poverty will upset their delicate social and economic balance.
In countries of "Old Europe," where unemployment remains a stubborn problem, authorities struggle to find work for their own work force, without the additional problems of migrant workers undercutting locals.
And yet, argues Denis MacShane, a British MP who once served as Europe minister, this fatigue is as much about globalization as about enlargement. Migrant workers are still going to flock to wealthy countries, whether they are EU citizens or not (there are already a million Romanians in Italy for example, before the country has joined). Jobs, factories, production lines will migrate to cheaper locations, regardless of EU membership.
"Keeping them out of the EU doesn't solve any of these problems," says Mr. MacShane. "You don't stop people coming, you don't stop the pernicious influence of trafficking and corruption and crime.
"But bringing [new countries] in [to the EU] means they are under pressure to try and improve their game," he adds. In other words, by pushing new members to improve in the regulatory arenas of human rights, health, and worker safety, EU membership will eventually level the playing field for businesses and workers across the continent.
In Britain moreover, it is arguable that the migrant influx – described by one academic as the largest wave of immigration the British Isles have ever experienced – has transformed the country in a good way. Employers have generally found the workmanship of the new arrivals reliable and cost-efficient. And for customers, there is no longer a shortage of handymen, so there is greater choice and better value.
"Our customers are happy," says self-employed Polish builder Marek Flaszka. "We are cheaper, but we give the same guarantees."
Yet Britain has decided that with Bulgaria and Romania it will not allow free access. There is a sense that in some parts of the country, the post-2004 immigration surge has led to imbalances, overcrowding, and serious pressure on local authorities. Some schools have reported that suddenly a quarter of their pupils are Polish.
Even immigrants like Mr Flaszka are unsure if a further influx is a good idea. "England is not so big for everybody in the world to come here," he says. "This is a problem if lots more builders come. The price will go down."
It remains to be seen if these doubts will ultimately lead to drawing up the bridge or just drawing breath.
Some European thinkers say that in the future, new entrants might get different types of members, that some European countries will be "more equal than others."
Katinka Barysch, an expert with the Centre for European Reform in London says that "inevitably you will have different forms of membership." She notes that some countries are moving closer together on justice and policing, others are bound in the single currency, and still others collaborate on regional foreign policy concerns.
"It will be a more flexible and fuzzy EU and that will make it easier to join," she says. "You won't have to take the whole package straight away."
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Formal talks begun, but no date:
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