New EU Workers Still Wait

Austria and Germany are the only two countries maintaining restrictions on work permits for citizens from Central Europe

News | Kamil Kluczynski | March 2010

Did you find a job? Great. Do you have all the necessary papers to apply? Wonderful.  Are you an Austrian? No? Oh, see now you went a step too far, sorry.  The remnants of the former Iron Curtain seem to linger in central Europe.  While the rest of the European Union has eliminated its labor restrictions, Austria, one of only two remaining nations, has chosen instead to extend them.

This is a story that continues to be told by those coming from the former Eastern Bloc.  The search for a job has been greatly hindered by the extension of labor restrictions in Austria, which require eastern EU nationals to apply for work permits.

These two members are, perhaps ironically, the border nations of the former Iron Curtain.  As the closest neighbors, one might expect closer ties and greater trust.

The European Union as an organization has emerged out of the ruins of the Second World War.

In the midst of the Cold War, France and Germany decided to integrate their economies, and in 1951, formed the European Coal and Steel Community with Italy and the three "Benelux" countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg, in hopes of making war unthinkable. Reconstituted in 1957 as European Economic Community, the association continued to add new members, and from the original six, the European Union now encompasses 27 countries across the continent, with possible candidates for future expansion.

The original plan was to integrate economies and build a degree of interdependence that would be the foundation for lasting peace.  These ideas were established as four founding principles in the original 1957 Treaty of Rome: the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. The interdependence would encourage cooperation and, in effect, eliminate boundaries amongst members.  Instead of having to deal with restrictions, services would be able to compete freely across borders. Labor restrictions have however hindered the creditability of those freedoms.

The first Eastern European states joined the EU on May 1, 2004, the biggest single enlargement in EU history. The new states included Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Malta; the final two do not have labor restrictions in the EU.

At this precise moment, barriers went up all across Western Europe, with the older member states unanimous in controlling new labor, Austria among them.

Six years later, that picture looks very different.  Of all "western" members states, restrictions remain only in Germany and Austria.  Under the EU constitution, states are allowed to impose restrictions for only a certain amount of time, with the maximum duration up to seven years.  Those seven years are then divided into three separate phases, known as the 2+3+2 rule.  Those members wishing to impose restrictions must reapply to extend them after each phase.

During the first phase the decision to impose restrictions does not need EU approval and lies solely in national policy.  For the second phase, however, member states have to inform the EU commission if they intend to extend their restrictions.  In order to extend the restrictions, they have to convince the European Commission that lifting them would cause them "serious economic disturbance."  The same procedure applies for the third and final phase.

Thus, the year 2011 is the one to look forward to for those that entered in 2004.  As of Apr. 30 of next year, all restrictions on labor will disappear, and there is nothing more Austria or Germany can do to extend them.  In 2006 the European Union welcomed two new members, Romania and Bulgaria.  They have suffered from the same policies as their predecessors.  At least Austria has been consistent with its policy towards Eastern Europe.  The maximum extension of restrictions for these two nations can stretch until 2013.  So far, Austria has imposed these through the second phase and it looks unlikely that they will do so again.

Vladimír Špidla, the European commissioner for employment and social affairs, has said that economies have only benefited from the elimination of labor restrictions.  Successive Commission reports, he says, have shown that the free movement of workers has had a positive economic effect.  He has given Ireland and the United Kingdom as prime examples of this.  These two members have received the biggest influx of "new EU" workers since their entrance.

Austria does not apply any labor restrictions to members of the "old EU" as they do not require a work permit to be employed in Austria.

"The right to work in another country is a fundamental freedom for EU citizens.  Restricting this in a democratic system can only be possible if you have a good reason," said Mr. Špidla after presenting "the Impact of Freedom of Movement of Workers in the Context of EU Enlargement," back in 2008.

The recent financial crisis could have been an additional motivation to extend these restrictions.  Unemployment has gone up throughout the entire EU, however, Austria remains with one of the lowest even after numbers have risen during the crisis.

The fear of a rise in unemployment and possible economic recession seem to be the reasons for extending these labor restrictions.  Chancellor Werner Faymann, Minister for Social Affairs Rudolf Hundstorfer, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Spindelegger all expressed their support when the application for extension of these restrictions was approved in Brussels.

The impact of these restrictions on Eastern European students is severe, as the following two examples show. Agnieszka Michalak, a Polish national, described the process she went through in her efforts to obtain a work permit in May 2008.  After being offered a job by an Austrian company, in search of someone who spoke Polish in order to operate in that region of the EU, she was given all the necessary paperwork to apply for the work permit, which she took to the Austrian Employment Service, the AMS (Arbeitsmarktservice).

"At first, when I went to AMS, they were very nice to me, but when they saw that I was not from Austria they were not so nice anymore," says Agnieszka.  The application for a work permit goes through a hierarchal process.  When applying, she had to present a letter from her firm describing why she was given the job and not an Austrian, and why she could do the job better.  After presenting her paperwork, she was then interrogated by the agent.

"They asked me how it was that I spoke perfect Polish," she continues, "I answered because I am from Poland."  Next the agent commented saying that just because she is from that country doesn’t mean she speaks "perfect Polish." He continued by saying that he knew a lot of Austrians who didn’t speak perfect German. Although it was only May, she received a seven-page document a week later stating that the quota for workers from the "new EU" had been filled.  She would later try again for a second time and again without any success.

Another student is Patricia Roman, a Romanian national. On first coming to Austria in 2007, she applied for a job at a gallery; they were looking for someone who was studying art. She sent her CV in and then received a reply stating that they were not hiring anyone from the "new EU.’"  A couple of weeks later she applied for another job, this time at an NGO.  She received an interview and afterwards was offered the job.

"We were about to sign the contract, when they asked me if I was Austrian or German.  I told them I was Romanian and then they said they couldn’t hire me because it took too long and was too much of a hassle to get a work permit," said Roman.

This hassle does not exist elsewhere in the EU.  In the rest of Europe where restrictions are gone, obtaining a job is much easier.  The same Polish student, Agnieszka, spent a longer period of time in Spain taking language lessons there.

"In Spain, I received permission to work within 40 minutes along with health insurance," says Agnieszka," the same is true in England and other countries."

So, a kind of Iron Curtain-like wall looks like it’s here to stay or for at least a couple more years.  2011 is the magic number for those who entered in 2004, and 2013 for the remaining latecomers. The new prospective candidates trying to enter the EU from the Eastern Bloc, however, are just going to have to get in line and wait their turn.

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