On posters across Europe, the Polish plumber is smiling, a happy symbol of an enlarged European family. But the posters have a darker side.
After 10 countries joined the European Union in 2004 – most of them from Eastern Europe – workers flooded into the more prosperous Western countries in the hope of higher wages and more opportunities.
Britain was one of the most popular destinations, and there was widespread criticism there of the numbers of Polish workers coming into the country. The British government has now announced it will restrict the flow of workers from Romania and Bulgaria when those countries join the European Union in January. The decision has triggered a storm of protest from the governments in Bucharest and Sofia. They say that in theory all E.U. newcomers are treated equally, but in practice some are more equal than others.
Worries about eastern European migrants undercutting wages in Western Europe are not new, of course. Twelve E.U. member states imposed restrictions on workers from the countries who joined in May 2004. Only Britain, Sweden and Ireland fully opened their labour markets.
This time round, Britain's decision has prompted speculation that the vast majority of EU members will follow suit.
Reaction from Romania has been particularly virulent, with president Traian Basescu threatening "political counter-measures" against any country deemed to be discriminating against Romanian workers. The controversy is bound up with Romania's economic status: it will be the poorest member of the European club when it joins.
Europe’s Poorest Member
Both before and after the end of Communism, Romania lagged behind other Eastern European countries. In recent years it has attracted considerable foreign investment and now boasts an annual growth rate of more than seven percent. But the average monthly salary is still low – around 200 euros. Workers in the long-established member States earn 10 to 15 times as much. Large numbers of Romanians have already left. There are an estimated two million Romanians working in Spain and Italy alone.
The possibility of a further exodus poses a dilemma for Western European countries. Not applying restrictions means attractive prices for consumers, but bad news for "native" workers in the construction business. Allowing unfettered migration would also play into the hands of populist parties that oppose immigration or E.U. integration, such as the National Front in France or the U.K. Independence Party.
But imposing limits could create a large black market for labour and open the way for exploitative treatment by unscrupulous employers. And a wave of emigration would deal a heavy blow to Romania's villages, which are already suffering from depopulation as skilled young people try their luck abroad.
However, some say fears of a human flood westwards are exaggerated. President Basescu's administration believes continued foreign investment in Romania will help boost the country's economy and the salaries paid to workers, making emigration less attractive.
Commentators such as the Paris-based Romanian television correspondent Paul Cozighian also point out that a strong "can-do" culture has evolved among the younger generation which is keen to create business opportunities at home.
Whether fears of a wave of migrants are well-founded or not, one thing is sure: wealthier countries shutting their doors to workers will damage relations with Romania and Bulgaria, and fuel what is already a sensitive and emotive debate on immigration.
Romanian expatriate organisations in the U.K. recently wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair, deploring what they termed "the denigrating campaign of the past weeks in the British media that does significant harm to the true image of Romania."
Meanwhile an interview in one of Romania's best-selling newspapers with a leader of the U.K. Independence Party caused a major stir. Nigel Farage said Britain's welfare payments would attract up to 450,000 Romanians next year. With elections due in France in 2007 and in other European nations soon, analysts suggest that political interests, perceptions and fears may count for more than the reality of migration.