Under the accession treaties, which were signed on 16 April 2003, member states have the option of restricting access to their labour markets to nationals of the newly acceded states during a transition period of up to seven years. Ireland made a decision to grant full access to its labour market to nationals of the accession states from the date of accession.
In making this decision, migration from the accession states in recent years was taken into account, together with our likely needs in the years ahead. Furthermore, the Government had regard to the findings of a number of studies carried out on the likely impact of enlargement on EU labour markets. These included studies by Brueker & Boeri for the EU Commission, 2000; Sinn, 2001; and Salt, 1999. Predictions vary, depending on methodology used, but research in general suggests that there will be no sizeable disruptions to EU wages or employment after accession. Most studies estimate an annual flow of workers to the present EU member states of 70-150,000 per year, with some forecasting a drop in the rate of immigration after one decade, and others predicting that the annual flow of migrants will remain high over the whole period of time.
The studies generally pointed to the fact that wage differentials between the host country and country of origin are only one reason that would encourage labour migration. Other factors to be taken into account include proximity, tradition and networks and linguistic barriers. Also, accession itself, or the prospect of it, may have an important influence on expectations and might even reduce the perceived need to migrate in EU accession countries. In Ireland's case, few of these factors, except for higher wages, are present. One can conclude that, all other things being equal, potential migrants from the candidate countries would be less likely to wish to migrate to Ireland and more likely to migrate to neighbouring countries with a long-established tradition of receiving such migrants, and where an established network of their nationals already exists. Austria and Germany alone were expected to receive in the region of 70% of all those moving. However, these countries have opted to retain their current work permit regimes during the transition period following accession.
After accession, it is expected that the majority of Ireland's continuing overseas labour needs will be met from within the expanded EU, thus greatly reducing the need for labour from the rest of the world. Were the Irish labour market to suffer a serious disturbance to the labour market during the transition period following accession, potentially up to seven years, Ireland retains the option of re-introducing an employment permit requirement for nationals of the newly-acceded member states under a provision contained in the Employment Permits Act 2003. The presence of this provision in no way means that an unmanageable influx of migrant workers from the new member states is expected. It is, however, a prudent measure as we move into a new phase in EU enlargement and an uncertain economic climate. The case for such a re-introduction would have to be based on quantitative labour market and unemployment data.
The question relating to the proportion of accession country nationals who may become dependent on social welfare is one that falls within the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.