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The EU’s Small Leaders

The defeat of the EU’s Constitutional Treaty in referendums in France and the Netherlands has, it seems, given rise to a new consensus that further enlargement of the Union should be slowed down, or even stopped. Advocates of this position see EU voters as terrified by the consequences of the May 2004 enlargement of the EU, when eight formerly communist states joined, and angry that they were not consulted about it.

One set of fears concerns the labor market – the so-called “Polish plumber” question. In this interpretation, wages were eroded and jobs were lost because of the inflow of poorly qualified and cheap central Europeans. Particular cases, such as the elimination of German meat processing and packing jobs, or casual workers in France, were widely discussed as evidence of a new threat.

But the “Polish plumber” is actually a weak bogeyman. First, there had already been a substantial flow of workers before enlargement. Poles had worked in some agricultural jobs – in sugar beet and wine harvesting – even during the communist era. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, labor flows, both legal and illegal, became much greater.

Second, inflows of new workers bring substantial benefits as well as losses: in France, which suffers a shortage of some 6,000 plumbers, there must be plenty of households that would be pleased to find someone qualified to do repair work.