23 August 2017
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France to open early to eastern EU workers

France sought to strengthen ties with countries traditionally suspicious of Paris that could prove to be important allies during the French presidency of the EU, starting July 1...

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced Wednesday that on July 1 the country would open its borders to all workers from eight formerly communist countries that joined the European Union four years ago. The decision abolishes restrictions a year earlier than planned.

The eight countries have faced labor market restrictions in several western European countries. Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden threw open their borders immediately; France has been among the most reluctant to open its frontiers.

Sarkozy made his announcement as France sought to strengthen ties with countries traditionally suspicious of Paris that could prove to be important allies during the French presidency of the EU, starting July 1. It also came as French companies complained about labor shortages in some sectors.

"All restrictions will be lifted from July 1 this year, in other words one year earlier than planned," Sarkozy said during a news conference with his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, in Warsaw.

"I cannot be committed to Europe and not make decisions that are consistent with that political commitment," he added in comments that were confirmed by his office.

The new rules will apply to workers from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, will still face restrictions until 2014.

Sarkozy`s announcement was all the more symbolic for being made in Warsaw. Poland is the largest of the new members states with 38 million inhabitants. And the specter of a Polish plumber stealing French jobs and pushing down wages personified widespread fears of globalization when the EU constitution was rejected in a referendum here in May 2005.

Since then, France has relaxed border restrictions for eastern European workers twice for a total of 150 professions suffering labor shortages and accounting for about 40 percent of the labor market.

The experience dispelled fears of an invasion of inexpensive labor from the east: from the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2007, only 30,000 seasonal workers and 4,850 regular workers came to France from eastern Europe, according to government statistics.

"The Polish plumbers never came to France," Vladimir Spidla, the Czech commissioner for social affairs, observed dryly in Brussels on Wednesday.

Spidla applauded the French move and called on Germany, Austria, Belgium and Denmark - the only countries that have not yet opened their borders - to do so before the EU`s final deadline of May 2011.

"It bodes well for the French presidency," said Spidla, who has long lobbied for a speedy opening of borders.

Sarkozy hopes to push through a number of contested issues during the six-month presidency of the EU. One of Sarkozy`s avowed priorities is strengthening Europe`s defense capacity, a plan eastern European countries have been warming to since Sarkozy declared that France was ready to rejoin the military command structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The other is bolstering nuclear energy as a major pillar of Europe`s energy security.

In another gesture, Sarkozy said Wednesday that France would use the EU presidency to push for stronger strategic ties with Ukraine. The president stopped short of offering future EU membership to Kiev - something Poland has been lobbying for - but spoke of increased cooperation.

"As head of the European Council I will want to propose an ambitious partnership for Ukraine," Sarkozy said in Warsaw.

By Katrin Bennhold, International Herald Tribune

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