Labor force approaches EU realm

  • 2001-12-13
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis, VILNIUS
On Nov. 28, Lithuania and the European Union made key decisions that will one day open doors for Lithuanians who want to work in Western Europe. It is now clear that, on accession to the EU, Lithuanians will have to be content with a waiting period with some countries, while others will allow free movement of labor from the start.

Lithuanian negotiators have closed three more chapters in the EU pre-accession talks, namely free movement of persons, the customs union and competition.

Both Latvia and Lithuania have now completed negotiations in 21 out of the total 31 EU negotiation chapters required for joining the EU.

The EU recently bumped both into a list of 10 countries that could join the club as early as 2004.

The two leave behind neighboring Estonia with 20 chapters and Poland with 18 chapters. Poland and Estonia began EU entry negotiations two years earlier than Lithuania and Latvia.

Lithuania, which officially opened the talks in early 2000, hopes to complete the negotiations in 2002 and be ready for EU membership on Jan. 1, 2004. According to Petras Austrevicius, Lithuania's chief EU negotiator, in the free movement of persons subject area Lithuania agreed to restrict labor movement for a certain period on condition it be allowed to apply analogous measures for citizens of current and future EU member countries.

EU member states are increasingly worried about a possible sudden influx of hopeful job seekers from Central and Eastern Europe as soon as the 15-member organization expands.

So far this year at least 3,700 Lithuanian citizens have either been deported or turned back at foreign borders. Great Britain sent the most Lithuanians home, numbering just under 1,100 people so far this year. The majority were deported for working illegally or for lacking sufficient funds.

The EU has suggested that all candidate countries, with the exception of Cyprus and Malta, take the maximum seven-year transition period.

Two years after joining the organization, EU countries will evaluate migration flows and possibly revise the requirement to continue limiting the free travel of citizens of the new member states.

The European Union does not require restriction on the free movement of labor.

Four EU countries - Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden - have announced of their readiness to take Lithuanian citizens into their labor markets from Lithuania's first day of EU membership. The United Kingdom said it would apply a minimum two-year restriction for Lithuanians.

Three EU countries ? Germany, Austria and Finland ? are decisively emphasizing a seven-year period. Observers say Germany and Austria are afraid of a mass influx of Poles and other eastern neighbors while Finland is worried about hordes of Estonians.

Lithuania will impose identical rules on the EU labor force. That would mean, for example, no restrictions for Danes, a two-year period for British citizens and seven years for Germans. But of course, each rule has its exceptions. Thousands of Lithuanians have already found ways to work legally in the European Union, and there are many EU citizens working in the Baltics.

Last week, in Vilnius, students of the International Affairs and Political Science Institute organized a discussion with politicians and economists about Lithuania's European prospects. Labor force emigration was one of the key issues.

"The more people who leave, the better it'll be for Lithuania," said economist Eduardas Vilkas. "These people will give more job opportunities to the rest of us who stay behind."

Conservative MP Andrius Kubilius said he had no fears about a mass exodus of Lithuanians. "Social research shows that only 3 percent of us would like to live abroad. Only young people have a different opinion. Forty percent of children would like to live abroad. And they even mention the exact place ? Disneyland," he said.

He added that most Lithuanians working abroad would return sooner or later to their homeland. According to Kubilius, the future of Lithuania lies in hi-tech light industry such as biotechnology and the production of lasers, for which the country is already famous.

"Look at Ireland. Many Irish people moved to other EU countries after it joined the EU. Now they're going home." But he said an Irish-style "tiger's leap" in the Lithuanian economy could take the same time as Ireland ? some 12 years.