Spain has been given the green light by the EU executive to tighten restrictions on Romanian workers as it struggles with the highest unemployment in the 27-nation block.
Spain will now require Romanians to have a work contract before settling in Spain and reverses a two and a half year moratorium that gave Romanian workers unrestricted access as fellow members of the European Union.
The EU commission recognised that the measure was necessary “due to serious disturbances on the labour market in crisis hit Spain,” said a statement released by Brussels, Thursday.
The approval running to the end of 2012 marks the first time the “safe-guard clause” to restrict freedom of movement by EU member citizens has been invoked.
Spain suffers from the EU’s highest jobless rate, running at over 20 per cent since May last year and rising to more than 30 per cent among Romanian nationals currently settled there.
The free movement of citizens from a new member state can only be restricted under certain conditions and Spain was asked to provide data to justify the implementation of the emergency curb.
Announcing the decision, László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said: “The Commission understands why, at this particular juncture – because of the dramatic employment situation and the very complex financial environment – the Spanish authorities wish to step back from full free movement.”
But he added: “We hope this move will be limited in time as much as possible and an overall positive attitude towards free movement in Europe will continue to prevail.”
Spain’s government has said it supports the free circulation of citizens within the EU but was no longer able to absorb new inflows of workers.
“The temporary measure will not affect Romanians who are already part of the labour force in Spain,” said Jose Blanco, spokesman for the socialist government, adding: “It will not affect the free circulation of citizens within the European Union, a principle that Spain has always defended.”
When Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU in 2007, their treaties of accession stipulated a seven-year transition period during which other members could limit access to their labour markets.
Spain lifted this restriction in January 2009, but warned at the time that it could re-impose it at a later date if the economy worsened.
Romania’s government has two weeks to request an annulment of the EU’s decision to approve Spain’s request.
The number of Romanians in Spain has quadrupled in the past five years to more than 800,000, making them Spain’s biggest foreign community.
Initially attracted by opportunities in Spain’s booming construction industry and for seasonal agricultural work, many are now returning home as what few jobs available are claimed by Spanish workers.
Romania itself has an unemployment rate of only seven per cent.
At the start of the downturn Spain’s government offered non-European immigrants a cash incentive to return home to their own countries but few accepted the offer.
The economic crisis gripping Europe and the influx of refugees escaping the turmoil of North Africa has brought freedom of movement commitments within Europe into question.
The Schengen Agreement has come under pressure with both President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy calling for a revision after France stopped migrants crossing over from Italy by train.
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