The UK’s Conservative Party has said that it is part of their immigration policy to apply “transitional controls” to immigrants from all new EU member states in the future.
Basic Rules on EU Workers Within the EU
The basic rule is that citizens of EU countries are allowed to travel freely within the EU and that they may live or work in any EU country without first having to obtain permission. This was a founding principal of the European Community and is contained in Article 39 of the EC Treaty.
Workers from EU countries are entitled to receive equal treatment to the citizens of any other EU country in which they are seeking or undertaking work. (There are some exceptions to this rule – for example, in relation to public sector jobs.) This has always been the default position for EU workers in the UK. However, the rules may differ depending on the particular country of origin and when that country entered the EU.
Transitional Restrictions on Workers from New EU Members
The EU’s Accession Treaty enabled 10 new countries (“the Accession States”) to join the EU in 2004. This treaty specifically allowed the existing Member States to impose restrictions on the freedom of workers from some of the new members to take up employment in the existing EU countries.
Until 2006 the existing Member States were allowed to impose any restrictions they felt were appropriate, without having to justify them to the European Commission. From 2006 Member States were required to notify the Commission if they wished to continue with restrictions and from 2009 the Commission would have to be persuaded that any continuing restrictions were justified. From May 2011 onwards it will cease to be permissible under EU law for any restrictions to be placed on workers from the Accession States.
Past Experience of EU Workers in the UK
In 2004 several Eastern European countries – including Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic – as well as Cyprus and Malta joined the EU. The UK’s government at the time imposed few restrictions on the nationals of these countries coming to the UK to work. The only practical restrictions placed on many workers from these countries related to their entitlement to claim state benefits in the UK. However, citizens of the Eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004 would usually need to register on the Worker Registration Scheme if they were to work for a UK employer for longer than one month.
Some people felt that the influx of workers to the UK from the countries which joined the EU in 2004 was damaging to the British labour market in that it reduced the number of UK jobs available to British workers. Indeed, most other European countries imposed restrictions on the right of nationals of the Accession States to work. When two more countries – Bulgaria and Romania – joined the EU in 2007 far greater restrictions were imposed on their entitlement to work in the UK. Whilst nationals of these two countries were entitled to come and live in the UK, they were generally required to obtain a work permit and an accession worker card before they could work in the UK. Similar restrictions were also placed on the families of Bulgarian and Romanian workers.
The Coalition Government’s Policies on EU Workers
The UK’s Coalition Government has made limiting the level of new immigration to the UK central to its immigration policy. In March 2011 the Immigration Minister, Damian Green, confirmed that the government would implement policies to restrict the right of EU nationals to work in the UK. However, the government may not implement rules that retroactively prevent the nationals of existing EU countries from working in the UK. The new policies would apply to the nationals of states which join the EU in the future.
Several countries – including Turkey, Iceland, Albania and Serbia – are currently in the process of applying, or trying to apply, to become part of the EU. The UK may now be less economically attractive to workers than it was to citizens of the Accession States back in 2004. However, the mere prospect of workers from these countries flooding the British labour market when the UK economy is struggling to emerge from recession and unemployment is high might send a shiver down the spines of voters and politicians alike. The Conservative dominated Coalition Government will undoubtedly do anything it can within the legal parameters to prevent a further onslaught of foreign workers from new EU members.