BRUSSELS—Romania has become the latest European country to question the continent’s commitment to the free movement of people, amid growing concerns in the East over the “brain drain” effect of the policy.
Romania’s finance minister, Eugen Teodorovici, suggested time-limited work permits should be introduced to stop former Soviet bloc countries from permanently losing their brightest and best to the Western member states.
His remarks, delivered in the Romanian parliament this week, represent the latest attack on a principle that has long been considered sacrosanct in Brussels and represents the most cherished of the EU’s “four fundamental freedoms.”
Free movement of people gives all citizens of the European Union the right to live and work in any other member state, provided they fulfill certain criteria, such as being able to support themselves financially.
The policy has come under scrutiny in recent years due to the number of workers from former Soviet states, where wages and living standards are much lower, moving West for a better quality of life.
Concerns that this phenomenon is eroding labor standards and undercutting wages in unskilled jobs has fueled dissatisfaction with the EU in the West and was widely seen as a key motivating factor for those who backed Brexit.
Traditionally, free movement was fiercely defended by governments in the East, whose economies benefitted enormously from overseas workers sending portions of their comparatively sizable pay packets to families back home.
However, in recent years, some have started to question orthodox thinking amid a growing realization that losing millions of the region’s brightest and most motivated young graduates could be holding its economic development back.
Teodorovici raised the possibility of restricting the amount of time Romanians can spend in other EU countries to five years during a debate in the country’s parliament on Nov. 27, according to Emerging Europe.
“If a Romanian goes to Germany and keeps receiving work permits then there is little likelihood of him or her ever returning to Romania,” Teodorovici said. “Maybe we should limit work permits to a maximum of five years, after which you need to move on.”
His remarks were criticized by fellow countryman Siegfried Muresan, a prominent center-right member of the European Parliament, who said Bucharest was trying to restrict Romanians’ rights as Europeans.
“Many Romanians who have moved abroad have done so to escape poverty at home. It is the job of the minister to create more opportunities for those people in Romania, not to forbid them from seeking a better life elsewhere,” Muresan said, according to Emerging Europe.
However, Teodorovici’s comments reflect growing unease about the policy that has also been voiced by other capitals in the region in recent years.
Last summer, Poland lodged a complaint with the European Commission over what it saw as increasingly aggressive recruitment drives by the British National Health Service to lure away newly qualified doctors.
Polish Health Minister Konstanty Radziwill reacted angrily after the UK health authorities set up a program, promoted in Poland by specialist recruitment agencies, offering medical professionals salaries stretching up to $115,000 and practical help with making the move.
He said Warsaw was increasingly concerned about a “deepening” shortfall of doctors to treat the country’s own ill because too many were leaving for better pay packets in Western Europe.
“In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe the problem of loss of health workforce may deepen,” the minister’s spokesman said in a statement. “There is a need to stop actively recruiting medical doctors and nurses from countries where their number is too small. We expect that the European Commission will take action on the EU level to support Member States in preventing the loss of medical personnel.”
This week, Romania’s health minister, Sorina Pintea, joined those calls and even suggested newly qualified doctors should not be allowed to leave the country at all to address the shortfall.
“Even though we have raised their salaries, many doctors still want to leave. We must find a way of obliging these doctors to stay in the country for a certain number of years after graduation,” Pintea said, according to Emerging Europe.
Other countries are facing an even more severe challenge, with two Baltic nations—Estonia and Lithuania—having both lost close to a fifth of their entire populations to the West since joining the EU in 2004.
The crisis prompted one prominent Estonian television commentator to warn that in just half a century his homeland may “cease to be a nation” altogether due to a lack of people.
Concern in the West
Meanwhile, in Western member states, concerns about the impact the huge influx has had on social cohesion continue to dominate political debate in many countries ahead of next spring’s crucial European Parliament elections.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told the chamber in Brussels on Nov. 28 he has a “hard time defending and explaining EU rules” that allow migrants from other European countries to claim benefits for children who live abroad.
Rasmussen, who is part of the pan-European liberal grouping, said that due to his country’s generous welfare system “this is from a Danish perspective not fair and it is a challenge to the Danish model of society.”
He added that recently a number of truck drivers “technically employed in another EU country were found to be working permanently in Denmark under horrible conditions, apparently under the pretext of freedom of movement.”
Rasmussen said the while EU must guarantee freedom of movement, it has to ensure that it is done in a fair manner and that the system is not abused.
“Stories like this hurt the image of the EU and we need to work together to ensure they’re not repeated,” he said. “In some cases, the solution is for the EU to step down and interfere less, yet in other areas, the EU needs to step up.”