Companies in Germany have benefited from the EU’s eastward expansion

As of: May 1, 2024 3:18 p.m

There was great concern 20 years ago: What would happen if the German labor market was suddenly opened to millions of people? Today the balance of the EU’s eastward expansion is positive.

Evelin Fazekas completed her training as a restaurant manager in Hungary on a Wednesday and was already in Germany on Saturday of the same week. Your dream of a new, better life begins in 2012. Although Hungary became a member of the European Union on May 1, 2004, it took another seven years before employees from the EU accession countries could work without restrictions in this country.

Worry about dumping wages and displacement

Ten countries became members of the EU in one fell swoop twenty years ago. After long negotiations and a preparation phase lasting several years, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus were added. The European Union grew from 15 to 25 member states – a reason for many to worry about dumping wages and the displacement of German workers. The freedom of movement of workers was therefore initially restricted in this country.

Evelin Fazekas has now been working for the Swabian medium-sized company Ziehl-Abegg for several years. In Künzelsau, the company produces fans for industry. Every day, Fazekas puts over 10,000 individual parts onto circuit boards that are later installed in the fans. She has to work with concentration and conscientiousness.

A job that is no longer attractive enough for many people. “Without the workers from abroad, nothing would work here,” says Marc Wucherer, CEO of Ziehl-Abegg. Some work as engineers, most in simple functions. The assembly of the circuit boards in particular is now carried out almost exclusively by employees from the Eastern and Central European accession countries. There is no other way to fill the positions.

On the assembly line despite having a high school diploma and training

Evelin Fazekas is actually overqualified for the job; she has a high school diploma and training. Nevertheless, she enjoys her work. Also because she still earns many times more here than in the catering industry in her Hungarian homeland. “My salary there would be a maximum of 700 to 900 euros. With twelve hours of work per day and also Saturday and Sunday.” Like her, many young Hungarians moved to other European countries at the time. “At least half of my class.”

Around 820,000 people from the EU’s eastern expansion countries now work in Germany. A study by the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich eV (ifo) evaluated figures from the Federal Employment Agency and came to the conclusion: The gloomy forecasts have not come true. The influx of employees from the EU accession countries did not lead to the displacement of German employees.

Rather, important gaps in the labor market have been closed. People from Central and Eastern European countries work primarily in areas that are “unattractive for local workers due to low wages or unfavorable working conditions,” the study says.

New markets, fewer barriers

For Ziehl-Abegg, the eastward expansion of the EU was a stroke of luck, and not just with regard to new employees, says CEO Wucherer. “We also opened up new markets and the barriers were lowered. That’s why we were able to expand.”

Countries like Hungary and Poland have benefited greatly from access to the EU internal market – the largest in the world. Foreign companies settled in the countries and the standard of living rose. “Our products were suddenly more in demand there too.” Ziehl-Abegg fans are installed in elevators and factory halls, but also in residential complexes or cold rooms in the food industry.

After the upswing there is a risk of stagnation

However, the increased standard of living and significantly higher wages in some sectors in the Eastern European EU states also mean that Germany is no longer as attractive as a country for emigration as it once was, says Kathrin Sommerfeld, researcher at the Leibniz Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim.

“We hardly have any additional employees coming to Germany, but there is this ‘turn over’ where people come here, stay here for a few years, half only for one to four years, and then go back again. There is that From an economic point of view, there is fear that there is no longer much additional potential. This will now tend to stagnate in the next few years.”

Evelin Fazekas still wants to stay in Germany; she has had German citizenship for two years now.

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