At a Loss: The Exodus from Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

If there is one enduring image from the contentious spring 2005 debate over the ratification of the European Constitution, it is that of the "Polish plumber." Indicating a seemingly universal fear of this phantom, both the fiery anti-immigration Nationalist Front leader Jean Marie Le-Pen on the far right and the former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius on the left invoked this imaginary man in the campaign for a French "Non." The supposedly spiteful Pole halfway across Europe would invade the French countryside and flood the market with cheap labor, crowding out jobs that French citizens needed and deserved.

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The imagery worked, the French campaigners received their "Non," and confederacy was restored to a European Union that was moving toward integration and a federal-style government. But amidst the chaos of the failed ratification, no one in this confederation ever asked what the Polish plumber's presence in Western Europe or his absence from Poland itself means for his country of origin.

While there is little proof that the Polish plumber is negatively impacting the economies of Western Europe, the sheer number of immigrant workers who move west for work ought to be of concern to Eastern European countries. Integration into the European Union comes with great advantages--access to diplomatic relationships with some of the world's most powerful nations, a common market in which to trade goods, and the status of being a member of one of the international community's most elite clubs. But Eastern Europe cannot afford to ignore the negative side effects of integration either, and the population loss caused by immigration to Western Europe has become an increasingly worrisome trend.

Happy Beginnings

The first day of May 2004 was a liberating one for the peoples of 10 countries in Eastern Europe. The fatigue caused by years of Soviet domination followed by the disarray of the post-collapse era ended, as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Cyprus, Malta, and Slovenia were officially admitted into the European Union.

For the first time in decades, formal diplomatic relations were established between the former Soviet bloc and Western Europe. The inconveniences of harsh immigration restrictions and lack of political clout were lifted with integration. And, after years of forced silence and insignificance on the world stage, Eastern Europe had finally found an independent voice, strongly legitimized by the backing of an elite global organization.

And while establishing diplomatic relations with the likes of Britain, France, and Germany was helpful for these semi-developed nations, the truly appealing incentive for Eastern Europe to integrate itself into the European Union was access to foreign markets. The 10 countries that acceded in 2004 had economies that paled in comparison to the likes of their developed neighbors. Britain, Ireland, and Sweden immediately flung their doors open to the Eastern European market, removing quotas on the amounts of workers and eliminating all trade barriers that previously bogged down economic relations. Other EU giants, namely France and Germany, placed restrictions on immigrants to stem the inevitable tide of people looking for jobs.

The initial results of the EU integration of Eastern Europe looked great for all parties. Poland, the largest of the 10 nations to integrate and therefore the most often cited example, saw its real GDP growth rate rise from 1.4 percent in 2002 to 3.7 percent in 2003, the year in which accession was ratified. Immigrants also sent back remittances, which according to the World Bank's Global Economic Prospects 2006 report can substantially reduce the severity of poverty and create education and labor opportunities in the country to which remittances are being sent. Britain, the largest country to open its doors to labor from the newly integrated states, also greatly benefited from immigrant labor. …