BRUSSELS The European Union executive gave debt-stricken Spain the green light Thursday to restrict Romanian workers from seeking employment on its territory, citing the need to protect its labor market.
Spain will be able to impose work permits on Romanians until the end of 2012, an exception to EU rules that allow citizens to work freely throughout the bloc's 27 member states.
Madrid's request for an exemption comes when many European governments are pushing to protect domestic labor markets from foreign workers because of anger over unemployment and budget austerity.
In recent months, EU governments have agreed a series of measures to strengthen the bloc's external borders and prevent illegal migrants from North Africa from reaching European shores and seeking jobs.
Britain, where riots in recent days have exposed a deepening gap between rich and poor, has capped the number of workers it allows in from outside the EU to 21,700 from around 28,000 in 2009 a year.
In Spain, unemployment has stayed above 20 percent since last year and the government is struggling to find sources for the growth it needs to service high public debt.
"This decision has been taken because of the very specific employment situation in Spain," EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor said in a statement.
"The Commission understands why, at this particular juncture -- because of the dramatic employment situation and the very complex financial environment -- the Spanish authorities wish to step back from full free movement," he added.
RESTRICTING FREE MOVEMENT
Romanians have overtaken Moroccans as the biggest immigrant community in Spain, with more than 800,000 living there. A third are unemployed and many live there without any official record.
More are coming as Romania struggles with financial woes of its own and poverty. Between March 2010 and March 2011, 89,000 Romanians left for Spain, according to Romanian foreign ministry estimates. More than a seventh of Spain's jobless are immigrants.
EU officials urged Spain and Romania to reform their labor markets and stressed that the new rules were temporary and would only spread to other countries under exceptional circumstances.
"We need to be very clear here: there is absolutely no doubt about the willingness and the strong conviction from the Commission to defend the free movement of people all over Europe," Olivier Bailly, a Commission spokesman, told a regular news briefing in Brussels.
Romania joined the EU in 2007 and faces temporary labor market restrictions in 10 EU states, imposed as a condition for its accession. EU governments will have to approve Spain's restrictions in the coming weeks.
(Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie and Radu Marinas in Bucharest)
(Reporting by Christopher Le Coq; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Elizabeth Piper)