by RAY FLEMING
ALMOST two years ago the European Union agreed to admit 10 new members in what became known as the “big bang” enlargement. There were dire warnings of the negative effect of this move from the eurosceptics in politics and the media. In Britain it was alleged that the labour market and social services would be “swamped” by a flood of new European immigrants from ex-Communist Eastern Europe. But yesterday the European Commission reported that Britain, Ireland and Sweden, the only three countries to open their doors fully to the newcomers, had benefitted substantially as a result and it urged other EU members to follow suit. Spain and Finland are likely to do so on May 1 but most of the others will continue to operate restrictions. The most surprising aspect of the British experience is that although the govenrment predicted that some 14'000 workers would come to Britain to seek work following EU enlargement, the actual number has proved to be close to 300'000, representing about 0.4 per cent of the UK workforce. Yet these Poles, Lithuanians, Slovakians, Latvians, Czechs, Hungarians, Estonians, Slovenians, have been absorbed by the British labour market, filling long-standing vacancies and helping to boost the economy in the process. Much the same story applies in Ireland which has successfully welcomed about 160'000 new incomers, probably a higher proportion of the labour force than in Britain. The EU Commission's report said: “After enlargement, there has been in all aspects positive tendencies. Employment is on the rise and economic growth is accelerating. The UK even shows that, due to enlargement, interest rates have remained relatively low.” Not all EU members are in a position to benefit as Britain has from opening thier doors to the free movement of labour. Some admitted substantial numbers from East Europe before the EU's enlargement took place and they already form a larger part of the labout market than in Britain. As with most EU legislation, the free labour market is not due to become fully operative until 2011; until then individual member states can apply restrictions if they think it necessary. However, the lesson learnt in Britain, Ireland and Sweden is obviously that in the right circumstances the free movement of labour brings only benefit.