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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Migration in an expanding EU
Graph showing migration from 10 Central European countries, to eight EU countries, during the 1990s

One of the most powerful slogans of the 1989 revolution in Czechoslovakia focused on the idea of return to Europe, "navrat do Evropy".

This worked on two levels.

The return of the state to the community of nations, as embodied in the EU and Nato, would be matched by a return to Europe on an individual level - long-isolated Czechs, Slovaks and others would have the right to live and work as equals with Frenchmen, Germans and Dutchmen.

In practice, it has been rather more difficult for the countries and citizens of central and eastern Europe to "return" than they had hoped.

The initial five-year timetable for EU enlargement mooted after the Berlin Wall fell has stretched and stretched. The first new entrants are not now expected until 2004.

Election battleground

With this extended timetable has come a general decline in support for the idea of enlargement.

Chart showing countries of residence of migrants from Central and Eastern Europe
Fears have arisen about the cost to the taxpayer of integrating poorer economies into the union, the environmental legacy of communism, and, perhaps most crucially, the volume of migrants from east to west.

According to sceptics in the west, enlargement means the enfranchisement of huge pools of low-cost eastern labour.

This, they say, will damage western Europe in two ways - first, by encouraging manufacturing industries to base themselves where labour costs are lowest in the east, and secondly by encouraging jobhunters to come to the West, adding to the 14 million already out of work.

This argument has been particularly strong in Germany, which, since 1990, has attracted about 75% of the migrants to the EU from application countries.

There, immigration is rapidly turning into a major battleground for the parliamentary elections in September.

Gerhard Schroder and the Social Democrats take a liberal line on immigration, epitomised by the end in 1998 to laws which had allowed only those with a blood right to take German citizenship.

Some of Germany's Christian Democrats, on the other hand, came up last year with the Malthusian Kinder statt Inder ("Children not Indians") slogan, which suggested that the solution to the ageing German workforce lay in breeding more Germans, rather than allowing people in from outside.

'Annexation' fear

In the other countries bordering candidate states, Austria and Italy - both countries with far-right, anti-immigration parties in government - the migration flows that will arise from enlargement have led to threats about the national veto being wielded on EU enlargement.


There is little evidence that fears on either side of the former iron curtain are anything more than a mirage

This western fear of mass immigration is matched by an equally potent Eastern fear: the "return of Europe", perhaps, rather than the "return to Europe."

The fear is that rich westerners will come east to buy up the land, a process some see as annexation by other means.

In Poland, where 25% of the population work rurally on the land, the Prime Minister Leszek Miller returned from a successful negotiation on this issue in Brussels last month to be told that foreigners (i.e. Germans) would descend "like crows" to pick the country apart.

Exaggeration

However, there is little evidence that fears on either side of the former iron curtain are anything more than a mirage.

The fears of massive migration from east to west following enlargement, have certainly sometimes been exaggerated.

One notorious example was an estimate by the UN High Commission for Refugees in 1989 which supposed that 25 million people from the communist bloc would move to the west in the 1990s.

In the end, fewer than 2.5 million made the move.

Figures through the 1990s show that net immigration from the 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe to the European Union fell considerably through the decade. According to the University of Kent, while 330,000 made the move in 1990, by 1997 the total was under 14,000.

The best policy to prevent enormous flows of refugees and migrants is, in fact, to strengthen growth and investment in the candidate countries - by enlarging the EU.

On the land issue, the easterners' fears are also exaggerated.

There is evidence to show that the benefits of investment and know-how from western economies make up for any "denationalisation".

For example, in southern Portugal after accession to the EU in the mid-1980s, modern market gardening techniques brought by Dutch immigrants have played a large part in dynamising the sluggish rural economy.

Transition periods

This is not to say that the migratory effects of enlargement are all simple.

Ten percent of the population of the 10 countries seeking enlargement are Roma, who often feel disenfranchised and isolated within their home countries. Integrating them into the new European economy is a major challenge.

The transition periods, each of which have been negotiated separately but which average out at around seven years apiece before free movement of people applies after enlargement, will allow time to resolve these problems.

They will also give breathing space for sceptics in Germany, Austria and Italy to adapt and acclimatise.


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