The European Union's eastward expansion was engulfed in controversy and recrimination yesterday as the largest country due to join the bloc in May threatened to retaliate against restrictions on its workers.
Poland, by far the biggest of the 10 new entrants to the EU, is rethinking its plans to open its labour market fully to the existing EU member states because of their moves to limit work opportunities for central Europeans.
A government official said: "One option that we will be seriously consider is 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'." Waclaw Konewko, a spokesman for the Polish Economic Ministry, said new labour market regulations were being drawn up.
The prospect of retaliation underlines the extent to which the atmosphere has soured ahead of the EU expansion, which is meant to symbolise the reunification of Europe after decades of division. Tensions over Iraq and the breakdown of talks on a new EU constitution have already taken the political gloss off the expansion.
The dispute over workers' rights has added to the malaise and polarised views. Hungary has announced employment curbs for citizens of those EU countries intending to apply them against Hungarians. And leaders of several of the new member states plan to raise the issue of access to labour markets when EU leaders meet in Brussels at a summit this month.
The free movement of workers is one of the basic entitlements of EU citizens. But, spurred by public opinion in the existing member states, particularly in Germany and Austria, the EU insisted on the right to restrict access to its labour market for up to seven years for Eastern Europeans.
Initially, several nations promised to waive this right. But most of the 15 member states have now imposed conditions, either on the right to work or to claim social security benefits. In recent months Sweden and the Netherlands backed away from pledges to open their labour markets fully to the EU newcomers. Britain and Ireland imposed a two-year ban on free access to their welfare systems.
When they negotiated their terms of entry into the EU, the new countries also won concessions in exchange, including the right to protect land or property from being purchased by foreigners for a transitional period. But the new restrictions on workers' rights appear to have fuelled Eurosceptic sentiment, particularly in Poland.
According to an opinion poll published yesterday, the Self-Defence party, which criticises Poland's free market reforms and EU entry, increased its rating to 23 per cent from 19 per cent. Support for the ruling Social Democrats, who concluded the deal to enter the EU, fell to a record low of 11 per cent.
The Polish business community condemned the likely restrictions, saying they would make Poland even less attractive as a destination for foreign investors who often complain of red tape and corruption in the country.
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