- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

GENEVA — A new wall of distrust is rising across Europe in place of the old Iron Curtain, built on frustration and anger over the flow of cheap labor from Eastern Europe to the continent’s wealthy West.

Although the communist minefields and barbed wire are gone, East Europeans face a minefield of regulations contrary to the EU’s avowed principle of the right to free movement and employment among its 25 member nations.

Some of the strongest opposition to migrating workers is coming from labor unions, which fear that East European workers are pulling down the wage scales by accepting lower pay than their Western colleagues.

The situation has prompted the EU Commission, the union’s governing body, to stress in a statement that workers from the east “do not take jobs from the people but fill the shortages and thus contribute to economic growth.”

East Europeans seeking jobs in the west feel like “second-class citizens” while Western workers dread the proverbial “Polish plumber.”

The stereotype originated with an ad in French newspapers warning of skilled labor from the east.

Last week the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, adopted measure allowing service companies supplying skilled workers to run their businesses across the entire EU.

While the legislatures debated the issue, thousands demonstrated outside to safeguard their jobs.

Although some European newspapers said that the new law “opened the doors wider to the Polish plumber,” East European labor-exporting countries and Western business circles called the law too restrictive.

According to Valdis Dombrovskis, a European Parliament member from Lithuania, “Our entrepreneurs are not welcome in old member states.”

The need for an array of skills in short supply in Western Europe has led to a proliferation of companies supplying service personnel.

In many instances, Eastern European workers accept contracts at half the minimum wage in countries such as France, Austria or Germany which is more than they could make in their home countries.

The contracts are usually limited in time — except in Britain, Ireland and Sweden, which have opened their doors wide to skilled labor from the former communist countries.

In Poland, whose population of close to 40 million accounts for half of the people of the recently admitted 10 new EU member nations, the dissatisfaction has fueled nationalism and growing criticism of the very concept of European unity.

Piotr Slusarczyk, spokesman for the conservative League of Polish Families party, described the EU as “an artificial creation, an immense and useless bureaucracy.”

Some EU officials see Poland as an increasingly difficult partner.

“The majority of Poles are still in favor of the EU but there is no more euphoria,” said Eugeniusz Smolarz of the Warsaw Center of International Studies. “Also, Poles have a feeling of being treated with arrogance by the old EU members.”

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