No pain no gain: EU accepts Spain’s controversial work permits
Civitas, 3 August 2011
At first glance, Spain’s decision to restrict the access of Romanians to the Spanish labour market is a double blow to EU standards. Not only does it appear to be anti-immigration, and thus symbolic of the shift to the right evident in so many member states, but, by specifically targeting those from one of the EU’s most junior recruits, it appears to be a relapse to old EU prejudices. However, far from falling foul to these accusations, the decision is in fact is driven by Spain’s unique difficulties.
Undoubtedly it is easy to view the introduction of these work permits as a targeted attack against Romanians; they are the only national group affected by Spain’s decision, and it wouldn’t be the first time they have found themselves blamed for another member state’s internal problems.
Regularly cast as the ‘undesirables’ of Europe, Romanians have often proved an easy scapegoat for politicians struggling with a difficult political climate and a restless society. Only last summer, they faced mass expulsion from France in what appears to have been an appeal to populist sentiments to boost Sarkozy’s ratings. As the dire situation of Spain’s unemployment becomes clear (triggering marches from Madrid to Brussels and national unrest) one could be forgiven for thinking Zapatero’s fall guy is also the Romanian. At 21.3 per cent, Spain’s unemployment rate is the highest in the EU, with the number of under-25s out of work at a soul crushing 44.6 per cent.
However, dig a little deeper and Spain’s decision is founded on sound reasoning, designed to plug a hole in the sinking of the Spanish workforce rather than scapegoating an easy victim.
Firstly, the number of Romanians in Spain has quadrupled over the last five years; of the 12 per cent of foreign nationals living in Spain, Romanians make up the largest foreign community (861,000), making them the prime group to introduce a work permit system for (Moroccans, who make up the second largest foreign national community in Spain are already subject to work permits). Secondly, this move is not about removing Romanians from Spain – those already working in Spain are entitled to stay – but rather stemming the future flow of migrants and improve employment opportunities for the Spanish before the employment crisis deepens. Far from playing on old-EU prejudices to appease national sentiments, Spain has taken a measured, temporary approach to deal with a situation that is fast deteriorating.
Furthermore, Spain cannot restrict other EU member states’ nationals seeking work, as the free movement of workers is a fundamental EU right. However, under the terms of Bulgaria and Romania’s accession treaties from 2007, the EU-25 can restrict the access of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals to their labour markets for the seven-year transition period.
It may be a U-turn on their earlier policies, but other member states should bite their tongue before condemning Spain’s hypocrisy. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, few were ready to welcome them; Spain, however, led the way where others feared to tread. Many member states, including the UK, have always insisted on work permits for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals. Earlier this year, the Netherlands announced they would only be granting work visas to Bulgarians and Romanians under ‘exceptional circumstances’, a decision that went largely unnoticed. In the past, Italy has also attempted to close its borders to Romanian workers. Spain’s decision to introduce temporary measures, taken in an economic climate of unprecedented difficulties, is simply incomparable.
Given the country’s ‘exceptional circumstances’, the EU Commission was right to accept Spain’s decision. It is by all means an unfortunate move, coming just weeks after Bulgaria and Romania wrote to the EU Commission asking for assistance to gain full access to EU labour markets. But, with desperate times come difficult measures, and Spain has a colossal mountain to climb when it comes to improving employment opportunities for its citizens. The fact that Zapatero’s government is taking a measured step to improve its dire employment situation should be applauded as sensible rather than discredited as discrimination.