Czech visa scramble as rules change

March 17, 2000

A demanding schedule of legal reforms designed to prepare former Warsaw Pact countries for European Union membership is fuelling political and bureaucratic friction in states on the "fast track" to join by 2004.

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia are rushing to harmonise domestic and foreign legislation, a key condition of EU entry for countries.

Dimitris Papadimitriou, associate lecturer at Bradford University's department of European studies and at Leeds University's Institute of Politics and International Studies, said meeting EU requirements offered long-term political benefits to new members, but economic hardship and disruption were often overlooked.

"Stricter border controls stopping the influx of cheap labour in the applicant countries are likely to have an adverse impact on the economies of these countries.

"Whether these new members' economies will compete effectively within the EU remains to be seen, but the Greek experience suggests their industry will disintegrate, with the least competitive companies simply disappearing," he said.

The Czech Republic's announcement of a new visa regime has alarmed economic migrants in the least well-paid jobs and foreign businessmen, language teachers and students working in the country. Residency permits used to be issued within the country, until a law announced in late December, effective from January 1, that all applications had to be made at a Czech embassy or consulate abroad.

Any foreigners who had not regularised their long-term stay in the country by the end of December have to leave the country and apply from elsewhere. British and American students and language teachers who had taken advantage of visa-free stay limits are scrambling to get their papers in order.

Heather Grabbe, an EU specialist with Birmingham University, said: "There is a danger that the EU is giving the benefits of integration with the West at the price of new dividing lines in the East."

Prague's cheap day labourers, cleaners and other domestic migrant workers from Russia and Ukraine may have a tougher job regularising their positions after the end of the 30-day visa-free stays of the past decade.

Nick Holdsworth

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