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How many Polish plumbers?

Article by Dick Leonard

September 15, 2006

How many ‘Polish plumbers’ have come to France and other EU15 countries, under-cutting the wages of native workers and boosting the unemployment figures? A great deal fewer than the public (and French and Dutch voters in particular) appear to believe, while the predicted massive increase of migrants from Eastern Europe, following EU enlargement in May 2004, has just not happened, according to a new report from the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).

Written by Julianna Traser, and entitled Who’s afraid of EU enlargement?, it reviews the situation a year after the entry of the eight countries concerned. Unfortunately, five of the EU15 states (Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal) failed to provide any statistical information, so the survey is restricted to the remaining ten ‘old’ members and the eight new ones.

Cyprus and Malta are also excluded, as their citizens were granted unrestricted access to EU labour markets from Day One of their membership. The other eight new members were made subject to transitional measures, running at the maximum until 2011, which the EU15 countries were permitted to apply. Only Sweden chose not to do so.

The consequence is that four different labour market regimes are now being applied in Western Europe;

* Restrictive, with would-be migrants being treated in the same way as non-EEA citizens (Belgium, Finland, Germany, Greece, France, Luxembourg and Spain).
* Restrictive, with a quota system being applied (Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal).
* General labour access with limited welfare benefits (Ireland, UK).
* No restrictions (Sweden).

The report does indeed show that the three countries applying no restrictions received more immigrants than the others, but the flow was much less than anticipated, was confined mostly to ‘hard to fill’ jobs, and there was no evidence that it led to any increase in unemployment. Furthermore, the much touted ‘benefit tourists’ notably failed to put in an appearance. Sweden, for example, which received some 21,800 workers up to the end of December 2004, paid out only a total of €18,000 in social assistance.

Although Ireland, which suffers from serious labour shortages, was the most popular target country, in relation to its own population, it was the United Kingdom which received the largest number of migrant workers. The official estimate was 175,000, or 0.4 per cent of the labour force, though research by a German-based think-tank suggests that the real figure is far lower – around 50,000.

Of the migrants to Britain, 82 per cent were aged 18-34, 60 per cent were male, and only 5 per cent of the registered workers had dependents in their charge. Large numbers of Polish and Czech electricians, plasterers, bricklayers and carpenters were recruited for the construction industry, which suffers from severe labour shortages.

The British National Health Service also took advantage of the opportunity to recruit highly qualified staff for posts it was finding difficult to fill. Dentists and anaesthetists were particularly welcome, a development which has caused fears of a ‘brain drain’, especially in Hungary and Poland.

Many fewer job-seekers came to France, which issued only 9,994 work permits to nationals of the new member states between May and December 2004. Nor was this surprising, as, for example, only 3 per cent of Poles claim to speak French, while 21 per cent speak English and 16 per cent German. Nevertheless, the high unemployment rate stoked fears which were unjustified by the facts on the ground. There are, undoubtedly, some Polish plumbers in France, but not very many of them.

Another reason why relatively few East Europeans have come to work in France is the formidable bureaucratic barriers which they face, and which only the most motivated or desperate try to surmount. Yet the main reason why the flows of migrants has been so much lower than expected, to the EU as a whole and not only to France, is the booming economies of the new member states, whose growth rate is twice that of the EU15.

This appears to be repeating the earlier experience of Spanish and Portuguese membership, when severe transitional measures were imposed, and were later found to be unnecessary as both Spain and Portugal experienced enhanced growth, largely helped by the structural programmes of the EU. Both these countries now import as much labour as they export.

Under the terms of the membership agreements, the Commission is due to report in 2006 on the effect, so far, of the transitional measures. This should not be regarded as a routine matter. It is essential it conducts in-depth research, with the full co-operation of all 25 governments, before producing its recommendations. The ECAS report is a valuable indicator, but its lack of resources and imperfect access to national statistics, must to some extent limit its validity.

The Commission must also make a major effort to publicise the results of its own study in order to counter the widespread misconceptions thrown up by the referendum campaigns in France and the Netherlands, which undoubtedly exist in other member states as well. Unfortunately, however, it will probably only be when countries like France and Germany have taken the necessary painful steps to remedy their unemployment problems that the scapegoating of Eastern European workers will come to an end.

* Dick Leonard is the author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.

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