By Stanley Pignal in Brussels
Spain is to introduce temporary restrictions on Romanians seeking to work in the country, the first time barriers to free movement of workers have been reimposed within the European Union.
Madrid indicated two weeks ago it would seek to stem the flow of Romanian labour, amid record unemployment. Its plan was approved on Thursday by the European Commission and will come into force immediately.
Spain’s move comes amid increasing doubts in some countries about the benefits of open European borders, reflected in the rise of populist anti-EU parties in Finland and the Netherlands. The passport-free Schengen travel area is in the process of being revised to allow the reimposition of internal EU borders in exceptional circumstances.
European Commission officials stressed the restrictions – to be in place until the end of 2012 – would not impact on the more than 800,000 Romanians living in Spain and were allowable only because of the “dramatic” employment situation there.
“We hope this move will be limited in time as much as possible and an overall positive attitude towards free movement in Europe will continue to prevail,” said Laszlo Andor, social affairs commissioner.
Spanish joblessness was 21 per cent in June, the highest figure ever recorded in any eurozone country since the single currency was adopted in 1999. Youth unemployment stands at 45 per cent, according to the EU’s statistical arm.
Jose Luis Zapatero’s Socialist government first mooted the restrictions on July 28, on the eve of announcing early general elections to take place in November.
“This sends a clear political message to the electorate,” said Sergio Carrera, of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think-tank. “Labour market problems in Spain are caused by structural and institutional problems, not by Romanian workers.”
The Spanish move targeting Romanians was only possible because Romania is a new joiner to the EU – it was the last country to accede along with Bulgaria in January 2007.
Existing EU members can opt to keep labour market restrictions on citizens from new member states for up to seven years, or 2014 in Romania and Bulgaria’s case. France, the UK, Germany and Italy are among those countries that have kept requirements for migrants from those countries to obtain work permits, usually linked to shortages of labour in certain sectors.
Spain opted to lift those restrictions from 2009 but has now effectively reversed that decision under a “safeguard clause”. It is the first time a country has reimposed a system of work permits having liberalised its labour market.
Neither Spain nor any other country has the ability to restrict workers from other EU countries bar Romania and Bulgaria. However, the Netherlands is leading a push to make it easier to kick out unemployed EU migrants who are deemed a burden on the social security system.
France last year carried out large-scale expulsions of Roma travellers, mainly Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, a move for which it was castigated by the European Commission.
EU figures show that the number of Romanians moving to Spain has risen rapidly in recent years, reaching 823,000 at the start of 2010. Romanians, many of whom worked in the overheated construction sector prior to the 2008 economic crash, now outnumber Moroccans, Ecuadoreans and Britons living in Spain.
Under European rules, the Romanian migrants are eligible to the same unemployment benefits as other EU citizens, including Spaniards. Latest figures show 30 per cent of Romanians living in Spain were unemployed, compared with 11 per cent before the downturn.