Romanian and Bulgarian workers should be allowed in Belgium as of 1 January next year, after Flanders, the last Belgian region opposing the move, lifted its veto.
The daily Sega wrote on Friday (2 December) that the decision is to be officially adopted this week by a “mixed committee” representing the Flemish, the Walloon and the Brussels regions.
Representatives of the Socialists and Democrats in Brussels have been holding negotiations with Flemish minister Philippe Muyters, in charge of employment and finance, for two years. They say they are confident that the last hurdle has been lifted.
Belgium is among the remaining 10 EU countries that are still applying restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers (see background). However, these restrictions have to be lifted as of 1 January 2014 at the latest, according to a deal negotiated when the two countries joined in 2007.
A spokesperson for Muyters told EurActiv on Friday (2 December) that a decision would indeed be taken in the next three days, but said it was too early to say if it would be positive or negative.
Belgium to profit from opening labour market
The Belgian state would be better off financially by lifting restrictions to Romanian and Bulgarian workers, according to EU sources, as it would allow a more efficient monitoring of their employment benefits.
Over the years, Romanians have developed 'tricks' to legally qualify for Belgian state benefits. These include filing a newly established company for bankruptcy or hiring and then immediately firing their spouses from a firm they had recently set up in Belgium.
One Belgian official close to the negotiation appeared more sceptical, however, saying: “Our laws are not adapted to your mentality.”
Romanian MEP Traian Ungureanu (European People's Party) denied suggestions that East European workers had contributed to rising unemployment or put pressure on the social systems of Western countries. Instead, he said they have brought a general economic growth of 1% to European countries that have welcomed them.
Bulgarian MEP Ivailo Kalfin (Socialists & Democrats) told EurActiv he was hoping that Belgium would lift the restrictions and that other countries would follow this example.
"The Bulgarian citizens never represented a pressure neither on the labour markets, nor on the social security systems of the EU member states. The current economic problems in the EU are clearly not created as a consequence of enlargement. The very wrong way to deal with them is to raise new barriers within the EU instead of opening and seeking more efficiency and competitiveness," Kalfin stated.
Long-awaited positive signal
If the decision goes ahead, Belgium would be the first to follow up on a demand byBulgaria and Romania in July to fully open the EU's labour market to their nationals from 2012. On 25 October, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in the same spirit.
But other countries have taken the opposite direction and have hardened their stance. Last April, the Netherlands have introduced restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarian workers similar to those applying to foreigners outside the EU. And last August, Spain, who had long opened his labour market to the two EU newcomers,introduced restrictions on Romanian workers because of rising unemployment in the crisis-hit country.
Last week, UK Immigration Minister Damian Green confirmed that his country would maintain labour restriction until the end of 2013.