Workers from 'New Europe' left out in cold

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The Independent Online

Citizens from "new Europe" face further barriers to working in the European Union because rising unemployment and an anti-immigration backlash have prompted two governments to renege on pledges to welcome the newcomers.

The change of heart means citizens of the 10 countries that will join the EU on 1 May next year will be able to work in fewer countries than expected.

The Netherlands and Denmark were among those that promised to give work permits to new Europeans instead of claiming the right to withhold them for up to seven years. Sweden, the UK and Ireland also waived their right to close labour markets.

But the Danes have now gone back on their promise and the Dutch are likely to do the same. Immigration is a hot political issue in both countries. The Danish government relies on the far-right Danish People's Party for parliamentary support. The Netherlands has not forgotten the impact of the anti-immigration campaigner, Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered last year.

The Copenhagen government says it will keep its labour market open but make work permits conditional of finding a job. New European workers will also be banned from claiming any social security for at least two years, and possibly seven. Those who are made redundant would, in effect, have to leave the country unless they found another job almost immediately.

The Dutch government has not decided how to tighten up its rules. The majority of Dutch parliamentarians want to ban workers from the new states until 2006. The finance minister, Gerrit Zalm, is among those arguing for closing the borders temporarily.

Other options include giving Eastern Europeans a work permit as long as they have a contract or imposing tougher work permit requirements. Dutch ministers are trying to get a pan-European solution.

A Dutch official said: "We would not have taken this position if other countries had not closed their doors. We accept that there will be a certain inflow which we can share. But if certain countries close their doors that has an effect because we are paying their bill."

Diplomats from the new countries believe their citizens should be treated equally. They say that the Danish restrictions allow for open labour markets - a better outcome than in Germany where borders will be shut for at least two years. British officials say there are no plans to close labour markets, but they can use the rules to discourage Eastern European workers.

Critics of the crackdown in Denmark and the Netherlands argue that Eastern Europeans are already leaving to work in the EU, many illegally. However, surveys suggest that few want to leave their countries for more highly paid work.

Gary Titley, the leader of Labour's 28 MEPs, said: "This issue is much more one of people's perception that of reality. When Spain joined the EU there were 110,000 Spaniards living in France but, within five years, that had dropped to 35,000 as the economy took off and people returned home.

"The Czechs, who have unemployment black spots and some labour shortages, find it difficult to persuade people to move from one part of their country to another."

An EU official blamed internal politics. "Suddenly the deadline of 1 May next year seems closer, the trade unions and politicians get excited and they put the issue into the spotlight."