EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Belgium decided on Friday (5 December) to keep barriers in place for Bulgarian and Romanian workers for three more years, amidst fears of growing unemployment in the context of the economic crisis.
"Given the economic crisis situation and the risk for unemployment rates to increase in the months to come," it is wise to take "all necessary precautions," reads a communique from the office of Joelle Milquet, Belgian vice-premier and minister for employment.
Belgium also argues that "the majority of the old member states have decided to maintain their restrictions for a new three-year period as well."
Additionally, the communique implies the measures could be beneficial for the two countries, notably for Romania, as "it should be also noted that Romania has currently the highest rate of labour shortage in Europe."
Since Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007, other EU member states have been able to restrict access to their labour markets for the "new" workers for a set period of a maximum of seven years, after which all of them must fully open up.
Concretely, this means that Bulgarian and Romanian workers need a working permit, accompanied by often lengthy and heavy administrative procedures, to be legally employed in these countries, with the procedures being simplified for certain professions in some of the member states.
All of the EU's older members but Sweden and Finland had opted to use this clause for an initial period of two years, and some have already announced or hinted they intend to keep the measures in place for a second three-year period.
Last month, the Netherlands opted not to open their borders for Bulgarian and Romanian workers, citing "the economic crisis [which] has caused concern for rising unemployment."
Luxembourg also announced it would not open for the EU's newest members, while rising unemployment levels in Ireland make it very likely that Dublin will also follow suit.
In contrast, almost all of the member states that joined the EU in 2004 have fully opened their markets for Bulgarians and Romanians, while Sofia and Bucharest have not imposed limitations to workers from other EU states.
In November, the European Commission encouraged all EU countries to lift the remaining barriers, arguing that the new workers had not caused "serious disturbances" on labour markets, nor had they flooded them, as some had feared.
Additionally, it stressed that workers from the new EU member states had contributed to the economic growth by bringing more workers where they were most needed, and had had "little or no negative impact" on wages and unemployment levels.