Eastern bloc may get right to work in Britain

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has said that people from eastern Europe should be allowed to work in Britain after 2006 under a fast-track deal for countries that will soon join the European Union.

As many as 10 countries, most from the former Communist bloc, are in line to become members of the EU in 2004 but previous rules would prevent their nationals from working in many European countries for up to a further seven years to protect jobs.

Mr Blair, an enthusiastic proponent of EU expansion, has been under pressure to sign up with four countries that have promised to extend normal rights of EU citizens to the new countries from their date of membership.

Sweden, Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands are keen to allow workers into their labour markets as soon as their countries become full members. Britain is not ready to go that far but it is prepared to drop restrictions two years after the countries join in 2004, and may open up some sectors of industry as soon as the countries join.

Mr Blair's decision is likely to provoke political controversy in Britain since millions of workers from eastern Europe could potentially have the right to work in this country.

Yesterday, Poland's minister for European integration, Danuta Hubner, said that a verbal promise from Mr Blair of "openness and flexibility" on the issue had been followed with a letter repeating the promise. The development follows a meeting earlier this month between Mr Blair and his Polish counterpart, Leszek Miller, at Downing Street.

Mr Blair said in his letter that the UK expected to lift the restrictions two years after accession and promised to look constructively at measures to open up more of the labour market sooner.

A survey published earlier this year showed that only seven per cent of Hungarians and 13 per cent of Poles said they wouldl "certainly try" to work in the EU. By contrast, 57 per cent of Hungarians and 31 per cent of Poles said they were "certainly not interested", even if they got an offer.

Ten countries have a realistic chance of joining the EU in 2004. Front-runners are Cyprus and Malta followed by the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Fears about the impact it may have on unemployment have been greatest in Germany and Austria, which have pressed for a transition period of seven years before workers are allowed into their countries.