TALLINN - As Sweden's new foreign minister, Latvian-born Laila Freivalds, tours the Baltic states, Swedes are arguing about whether EU enlargement will have a negative impact on their labor and welfare systems.
Some Swedes fear that after May 2004, when 10 new nations join the bloc, the country will suffer from an invasion of East Europeans looking to take advantage of its generous welfare benefits.
Speaking on the national television program "Hard Facts," Berit Rollen, chairperson of a state task force that analyzed the impact accession would have on Sweden, said that the country should impose restrictions on the free movement of labor from new EU members such as Estonia and Poland.
Rollen added that although Sweden had not followed the example of Finland, which installed a two-year ban on workers from Eastern Europe, the country should soon do the same.
Otherwise, she warned, people from this region will flock to Sweden.
"They would not come here to look for work but to live with their families on welfare. When Estonians and Poles come to Sweden they would take half their relatives with them to benefit from the Swedish social welfare system," Rollen said.
As an example, she said that if an Estonian nurse were offered a part-time job in a Swedish hospital in Umea, she would receive 15,000 kronor (1,700 euros), which is not enough to support a family. As a result, the Estonian woman and her husband and two children would receive social welfare benefits, which would end up costing the Swedish taxpayer 120,000 kronor per year.
Later, continued Rollen, the Estonian nurse would invite her mother and father along with her mother-in-law and father-in-law to join her family in Sweden, and in the end the total cost imposed on the state would amount to 320,000 kronor a year.
Other prominent Swedes have also stressed the vulnerability of the nation's welfare system to EU accession.
Jan-Ake Brorson, representative of the social welfare board, said that entitlement to receive welfare benefits occurs when the person works 10 hours to 15 hours a week.
He provided an example of a Polish construction worker who would have to work only 10 hours a week to receive social benefits. The family of the worker would receive 3,000 kronor a month in child welfare payments, 1,000 kronor a month in housing benefits and 5,000 kronor in parental benefits. The state support would total 9,000 kronor a month.
According to Rollen, East Europeans are ready to take advantage of Sweden's asylum policy that enables them to live in Sweden for a few years while his or her application is being processed.
But Hans Karlsson, Swedish minister of labor, said he disagreed with such examples. He said that he did not believe that there would be a massive influx of poor workers after May 2004.
He also pointed out that the country was incapable of supplying labor demand with local workers.
Unlike Rollen, Karlsson said that candidate countries must be treated as equals from the start. "Enlargement is not a danger. It is an opportunity," said Karlson, adding that Sweden's economy would only benefit from free movement of labor force.
According to the authors of the "Hard Facts" program, there are already many East Europeans working in Sweden for a few thousand kronor a month without working permits. One program reporter went so far as to predict that in the future Estonians and Poles would be interested in working in Sweden even without payment since their contract would entitle them to receive social benefits. The money could then be divided between the employer and the worker.