Europe's free movement rules could be destined for a shake-up under Austrian plans
Eurocrats refused to be drawn today on dynamite plans by Austria that would put an end to the issue of wage undercutting by workers from other member states which has proved so unpopular with ordinary voters.
Vienna said it was fundamentally “unfair” that workers predominantly from neighbouring Eastern Europe were willing to take jobs for lower pay at a time when unemployment amongst its own population is rocketing.
Any move to restrict the movement of low-skilled labour would be one of the biggest shake-ups of free movement rules in the bloc’s history and would address key concerns voiced during Britain’s referendum campaign, but it would likely be ferociously opposed by eastern European members.
It would also have a fundamental impact on the upcoming Brexit negotiations, with the issue of visa liberalisation and movement of people likely to be front and centre of talks on any free trade deal between London and Brussels.
The EU will not want to be seen as compromising on immigration rules as part of such a pact for fear it could encourage other members to follow Britain’s example, and a reformed free movement system would give Theresa May and eurocrats extra breathing space.
Brussels officials were desperate not to give anything away when quizzed on the issue today, and appeared very reluctant to reignite the debate over Europe’s immigration rules in case their remarks handed Westminster potential leverage during the Brexit talks.
Austrian chancellor Christian Kern wants to end the issue of wage undercutting
Chief eurocrat Mr Juncker met Austria's two leaders in Brussels today
But their reluctance to rule out the ambitious proposals, which would be against current EU law and thus require a treaty change, spoke volumes about the growing realisation in European capitals of the need for change.
The issue came up after EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker met with Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen and the country’s chancellor Christian Kern in Brussels to discuss the future of the EU.
Asked about the Austrian plan, under which EU citizens would be barred from taking jobs if a qualified Austrian has applied to the same position, a stony-faced Jean-Claude Juncker would only reply: “Yes, that question did play a big role [in the discussion].”
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Mr Van der Bellen was equally unforthcoming, uncomfortably telling assembled reporters: “It is true that we talks about that. The issue is very, very complex and we looked at all the sides of the question.”
Only Mr Kern, whose proposal back in January caused a stir across Europe, offered any kind of detail about what the trio had discussed behind closed doors.
The problem isn't people from other European countries working in Austria, but rather they’re doing that to potentially unfair conditions
Austrian chancellor Christian Kern
In a statement at odds with his previous declarations back home, he said: “We have nobody in Austria who is calling for preferential treatment for local inhabitants or Austrian nationals.
“Austria is affected by a major wage gap and the increase in unemployment which means we have to create jobs more and more every year.”
He said his country’s priority was “in particular in applying the principle of equal pay for equal work to ensure that we can have a fairer Europe”.
And he added: “The problem is not so much the issue that people from other European countries are working in Austria, but rather they’re doing that to potentially unfair conditions.”
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During a speech in the town of Wels last month Mr Kern accused Eastern European nations of "exporting their joblessness to Austria" and said restrictions should be put in place to favour local workers.
In a proposal which would currently be against EU law, he suggested that “only if there is no suitable unemployed person in the country can [a job] be given to new arrivals without restriction”.
The issue of free movement and the undercutting of wages became a major talking point during the Brexit referendum, especially amongst working class communities which overwhelmingly backed leaving the EU.
David Cameron attempted to achieve minimal reform of free movement through his shambolic renegotiation package but was roundly dismissed by Brussels in what was seen by many as a pivotal moment when Remain lost the battle.