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EU Discusses Expansion, Free Labor Movement - 2001-05-06

European Union foreign ministers, wrapping up an informal meeting in Sweden, are discussing the long-term future of Europe with their colleagues from 13 countries seeking to join the wealthy club. But, the get-together in the town of Nykoping has been soured by a dispute over allowing workers from candidate countries to seek jobs in EU member states once their nations join the bloc.

It is a problem that could threaten plans to expand the 15-member EU to 13 other countries in eastern and southern Europe in the years ahead.

Sweden, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, wants to step up the pace of negotiations that would allow six of the candidate countries to join the group by the year 2004. The Swedes are worried that public opinion in the candidate countries may become disillusioned if the negotiations get bogged down.

But Germany and Austria are insisting that workers from new members be banned from moving freely into the existing EU for seven years. They say an influx of cheap labor from Eastern European countries would stoke nationalism and racism among Germans and Austrians.

The candidate countries oppose such a transition period, saying it would relegate them to second-class status within the EU.

The EU's executive Commission has offered up a compromise proposal whereby individual member states could decide after a two-year ban on Eastern European workers whether or not to open up their borders. But Spain is blocking approval of that plan.

Madrid is concerned that, once poor Eastern European countries join the EU, it will lose some of the generous aid the EU gives it for Spain's less-developed regions.

Spain, backed by Portugal, is linking its approval of the European Commission's compromise plan on free movement of workers to guarantees that it will not lose any of the more than $30 billion in regional aid it is slated to get over the next five years.

France is also concerned that it may lose some EU funding for French farmers once heavily agricultural Poland joins the group. Germany rejects any attempt to link the free movement of workers and the aid issue.

Sweden has vowed to continue trying to find a compromise that will be acceptable to everyone. But it seems unlikely that the EU, whose members make decisions by consensus, will arrive at a solution to the problem before a summit meeting next month.