In its biggest enlargement move ever, the EU accepted ten new members in 2004, mostly from the Continentâ€™s ex-communist East. The path followed by these countries since the Second World War had failed to afford them the standard of living that their Western neighbours enjoyed. Their hope was that joining the EU would help them to catch up. What was less certain was how this integration would affect the older EU states.
The prospect of tens of thousands of young East European immigrants sparked an emotional debate in the West. The French prime minister expressed concern that the EUâ€™s proposed Bolkestein Directive, which would have let foreigners operate under their home countriesâ€™ less stringent labour laws, might put host country workers and contractors at a disadvantage. In France, commentators stoked fears that hordes of â€˜Polish plumbersâ€™ would take up to one million French jobs and undermine the countryâ€™s long-standing social model, characterized by its generous but expensive welfare system. A media panic erupted, leading in May 2005 to French rejection of a constitutional referendum aimed at modernizing EU operating procedures. The vote was a defeat for European integration and Bolkestein was quietly sidelined.
Organizational enlargement is a difficult process requiring major efforts to satisfy existing membersâ€™ concerns. In summer 2005, the Polish government sponsored humorous advertisements showing a handsome plumber inviting people to visit Poland. The point was to remind French society that it too might benefit from the new EU members. The situation gradually calmed down, especially once it became clear that mass migration to France was not going to take place. Between May and November 2006, French authorities received a mere 10,165 residency requests from Eastern bloc workers (RTL 2006). This was much lower than expected and reflected developments keeping Polish workers at home, like the countryâ€™s growing role as an outsourcing destination for many multinational banksâ€™ administrative operations (Wilkinson 2007). Ultimately, by mid-2008 the French population was sufficiently reassured for the government to lift any restrictions on the immigration of Polish workers. Nor was this measure followed by an accelerated emigration of Poles to France, with Germany and the UK remaining their preferred destinations. The end result was that unlike the UK, where accusations of Poles taking â€˜British jobsâ€™ received a wide airing from politicians, Eastern Europeans were barely mentioned in the run-up to Franceâ€™s 2012 presidential election. At one level, this reflected the French populationâ€™s greater acceptance of the EU. At another, it translated peopleâ€™s relief that EU enlargement had had less of an effect than they originally feared.