In some EU15 countries, the high number of predicted immigrants raised fears among politicians and the general public that already high unemployment rates would rise further once 'cheap' labour flooded the market.
In 2004, 75% of Germans surveyed expected unemployment to rise following the accession of the Central and Eastern European states; only 28% welcomed the expansion. In France, the 'Polish plumber' became a symbol for a perceived threat to the national labour market due to EU expansion, a perception that helped fuel France´s rejection of the EU Constitution in May 2005.
Attempts by economists and other researchers to predict the number of labour migrants from Central and Eastern Europe came to varying conclusions
A look at the southern enlargement of the EU suggested that a large inflow of labour migrants was not to be expected. Following the accession of Spain, Portugal and Greece to the EU in the 1980s, relatively little migration took place between the new and old member states; the number of migrants even declined slightly. It was argued, however, that the case of these countries was not comparable to the case of the EU8, as the wage difference between the latter and the EU15 was going to be much higher at the time of their accession than had been the case for Spain, Portugal or Greece.
In light of the number of Central and Eastern European labour migrants anticipated, Germany and Austria were particularly concerned that they would be the recipients of the majority of labour migrants from the EU8, given their geographical proximity to those countries; a proximity that was not there in the case of Spain, Portugal and Greece's accession to the EU. Fears surrounding this geographical proximity were increased by the fact that approximately 80% of the migrant workers arriving from Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain have chosen Germany or Austria as their destination.
Two years after accession, it is possible to examine the preliminary experiences of those EU15 countries that chose to allow the unrestricted free movement of workers and to ask whether it makes sense for Germany to continue to disallow it.
Michael Heinen and Anna Pegels are doctoral students in international economic relations at the Ruhr-University of Bochum.