European labour market opens for Romanians, Bulgarians
BUCHAREST - Agence France-Presse
A man reads a newspaper behind a bus window painted with the EU sign and a map of Bulgaria, in Sofia. Romanians and Bulgarians have received the right to work freely across the EU. AP photoRomanians and Bulgarians have the right to work in any of the European Union's 28 countries from Wednesday but "no major increase" in emigration is expected, the European Commission said.
The lifting of work restrictions has prompted fears of an "invasion" in Britain and Germany.
"There are over three million people from Bulgaria and Romania already living in other Member States and it is unlikely that there will be any major increase following the ending of the final restrictions," European Commissioner for employment Laszlo Andor said in a statement Wednesday.
"In hard times, mobile EU citizens are all too often an easy target", he added.
Britain rushed through a series of measures to ban EU migrants from claiming unemployment handouts from the moment they arrive, while German lawmakers raised concerns about social benefits fraud.
But Bucharest and Sofia slapped down the fears, saying their countrymen are not planning an exodus en masse.
In Sofia, President Rosen Plevneliev asserted in his New Year's Eve speech that Bulgarians "would like to have a worthy job" at home, and "not to buy a one-way ticket and leave Bulgaria".
Bulgarian and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, becoming the bloc's poorest members.
Since then, 17 EU countries including Italy and Sweden have lifted restrictions on their work markets. Analysts believe therefore that Bulgarians and Romanians who are looking to work elsewhere would already have done so, rather than wait until Wednesday, when the nine remaining EU countries -- Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain -- lift restrictions.
Nevertheless, the move was watched with trepidation in Britain, where hundreds of thousands migrants have made their home since the EU expanded to eastern Europe in 2004.
The Labour government in power at the time vastly underestimated the number who would come and admitted it should have done more to limit the influx.
Members of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party pressed up until the last moment for restrictions to be extended but party chairman Grant Shapps said Britain had done all it can "within the law" by already extending the restrictions by two years.
In Germany, the Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, also raised concerns about "social benefits fraud" and drew up a list of proposals to make it more difficult for newcomers to receive state help.
But German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert noted that "the free movement of persons is also a chance for the Germans and Germany".
German state secretary for migration, refugees and integration Aydan Ozoguz also argued that "by saying that all people from Bulgaria and Romania are poor and come here only to get benefits, we just ignore the numerous highly qualified people who work here, for instance as doctors and nurses".
Elsewhere in the EU -- including in crisis-hit Spain, which is already home to over a million Romanians -- there was little talk about the lifting of restrictions.
In Bucharest, many people told AFP they were unaware of the changes to come into effect on Wednesday and that they did not plan to leave.
A number of analysts in Bucharest and Sofia were unable to give estimates about number of people who plan to emigrate, but said they believed the big waves have already passed.
About three million Romanians and one million Bulgarians have emigrated, not just to the EU, in search of a better life since the fall of communism over two decades ago.
The main push factor was low wages; most doctors in the two countries earn around 400 euros ($550) a month, a fraction of what they would get elsewhere in the EU.
"I would have stayed if I could earn more in Romania because I prefer to be in my country and with my family," said 32-year-old Titu Ionut, who is a construction worker in Spain.
Others felt differently.
"It is important to believe that you can succeed here and I think this is possible. Other countries also have their flaws," said Bucharest university lecturer Simona Mazilu, 34.